A firefighter tries to put out the wildfire on August 19, 2020 in San Mateo, California. (Photo by Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why can’t California control predictable fires?

California’s rulers again shift the blame to conservatives rather than admit their own incompetence

The State of California has the fifth largest economy in the world (larger than Britain’s). It is blessed with natural resources, a Mediterranean climate, huge fertile valleys, mountainous sources of fresh water, the largest ports between Asia and the Americas, and highly developed industries (in both traditional and new technologies). Its taxes are high, its revenues are high. It entered 2020 with a budget surplus.

Yet California is unready for wildfires that peak at this time every year. The wildfires keep getting larger, but California’s rulers always blame out-of-state conservatives instead of their own mismanagement.

For years, local authorities have alleviated the high cost of living and shortage of housing by authorizing huge residential developments in wildlands, thereby increasing exposure to wildfire. State, city, and local authorities take high taxes from these communities, but don’t invest as much in the infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the State’s regulations on emissions and protections of the environment prevent fire managers from controlling the natural accumulation of fuels, via planned burns, logging, and brush clearance. In May 2018, the State liberalised fire management, but the opportunities for intervention are seasonal and take time to coordinate between private, state, and federal landowners and emergency managers. 

Accumulation of fuels ends in larger fires. More interfaces between urban areas and wild lands mean more frequent fires and more property damage. The environmental protections are counter-productive for the environment too. In 2018, the State’s wildfires produced nine times more emissions than had been cut by economic regulations in both 2016 and 2017 combined.

California suffers thousands of natural wildfires per year, but in recent years the State has failed to contain them. The ten largest fires on record occurred since 2000. In 2017, fires in the wine country to the north of San Francisco (Napa and Sonoma Counties) killed 22 people and burned more than 36,000 acres. In 2018, a fire in Butte County (inland, to the north-east of San Fran) killed at least 85 people, destroyed 19,000 built structures, razed entire towns (such as Paradise), de-housed 50,000 people, and cost billions of dollars (including $2 billion just to remove toxic debris). 

The public energy company (PG&E) was partly responsible for igniting those fires with its aging power lines and failure to fell proximate trees. In 2018, half of California’s wildfire ignitions were electrical. The State’s regulators attributed the causes but ruled no wrong-doing. Private litigation caused PG&E to file for bankruptcy in January 2019, thereby avoiding $30 billion in damages. Yet PG&E continues to operate, and the State has offered no alternative, except additional regulators. In October, PG&E agreed to pay $11 billion to resolve insurance claims from the biggest fires of 2017 and 2018. 

The State has not taken responsibility for its electricity infrastructure. Most of California’s current power lines were built before 1950, some in the 1920s (one of the latter sparked the Butte County fire). Leaked documents reveal that PG&E knew of the risks for years, but deferred solutions. 

California’s progressives are pseudo-scientists, hypocrites, and negative politicians

Utility providers have little incentive or money to upgrade anything, given state legislation requiring 100 percent green energy by 2045 (50 percent by 2030). In the 2010s, PG&E claimed to spend $2.7 billion per year on infrastructure. PG&E claims that it cannot break down its spending in recent years, although opposition politicians discovered that in 2018 PG&E spent $2.4 billion on renewables, Southern California Edison spent $2.5 billion, and SDG&E spent $0.7 billion. Superficially, these are worthy investments in environmentalism, but they won’t return profits that could be spent on the infrastructure, which has its own environmental risks. Renewables are more expensive and less reliable than fossil fuels. Their green-ness is somewhat illusory, as popularised recently by Michael Moore’s documentary film “Planet of the Humans.” Current wind turbines and solar panels consume more energy during manufacture than they will return during their short life cycles. Even without accounting for shorter life cycle and wider clean-up (batteries are particularly expensive and toxic), a solar plant is 1.5 to 2.5 times more expensive in capital costs than a natural-gas plant.

A perverse way to increase the proportion of renewables is to cut fossil fuel plants before renewable replacements are ready. Since 2013, California has closed enough natural-gas plants to supply four million households. It has replaced some of this supply with out-of-state sources, which are even more reliant on fossil fuels. Moreover, greater travel means less efficiency and more exposure to wildlands.

Increasing the proportion of renewables, without reducing demand, leads inevitably to power shortages. California first experienced rolling power cuts in 2001, when the market was restructured to favour renewables. In October 2019, PG&E started cutting power to nearly 800,000 customers across 34 counties in northern and central California. By the end of the month, 2 million were affected. PG&E testified that it might impose power cuts for the rest of this decade. PG&E said it needs to lower the risk of fire during hot dry windy weather. This is also when demand tends to peak, as air conditioners are running.

A firefighting aircraft drops retardant ahead of the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 20, 2020 in Healdsburg, California. The LNU Lightning Complex fire is spread over 5 counties and has burned over 130,000 acres. The out-of-control wildfire has destroyed at least 50 homes and is zero percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In normal times, California receives 15 percent of its energy from out of state, but neighbouring states experience peak demand during the same weather. Within the daily cycle, peak demand is in the evening, when solar and wind power fall away. Then the State’s grid operator struggles to source up to 50 percent of demand. That’s why “blackouts” are now being called “greenouts.”

In mid-August 2020, PG&E pre-emptively cut power to millions of Californians again. By then, renewables generated 36 percent of California’s electricity. In the following days, public authorities approved the release of an emergency reserve of water (which was unusually high, after a wet winter), in order to generate hydroelectric power. That reserve won’t be replenished until early next year, if at all.

Power outages complicate readiness: traffic lights stop working, residents cannot see to defend their homes from opportunistic criminals, and emergency assets congregate around generators instead of distributing to the frontlines. On 17 August, Governor Gavin Newsom waived the State’s emissions standards in order to allow service providers and private businesses to run generators. 

The same day, the Governor described the blackouts as “unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state.” Yet Newsom doesn’t blame any policy for the energy shortages, only the heat

Also on 17 August, the largest fire of the season started, in the five counties north of San Francisco, affecting more than 350,000 acres. The next day, the Governor declared a statewide emergency. Initially, the State blamed a lack of prisoner firefighters, caused by the coronavirus lockdown, but this shortage had been known for months. Ten days later, the State got around to calling up National Guard soldiers as firefighters. In the meantime, hundreds of smaller fires combined, such that more than 1.2 million acres have been burned, nearly 250,000 California residents are under evacuation orders, and at least seven have been killed.

Left-coast progressives are reminding voters why they chose Trump as the least-worst option in 2016

Governor Newsom doesn’t admit any electrical ignitions for the wildfires, only lightning strikes and the heat. Predictably, Newsom blamed climate change and thence the Republicans in his recorded message to the Democratic National Convention. Subsequently, CNN attributed the current disaster to climate change alone. Newsom was one of its sources, but re-tweeted the report as evidence for his line. It’s difficult to trust the Governor, given concurrent revelations that he failed to take the pay cut that he forced on state employees in May, while his wife (officially known as “the First Partner of California”) talks with a glamour magazine about feminism and make-up. Newsom has no excuses for naivety about wildfire risks. He was the Governor’s deputy from 2011 to 2019, Mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011, and a commissioner in the Mayor’s office from 1996.

Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris also should know better. She has been one of California’s US Senators since 2017, the State’s Attorney General from 2010 to 2017, a district attorney before that. She has built a career on seconding the State’s radicalism on energy, the environment, and social justice. She has tweeted about “an explosion of wildfires and the White House still has not granted Governor Gavin Newsom’s disaster declaration request.” In fact, President Trump granted the request on the same day as her tweet – 22 August, one day after the Governor lodged the request.

The senior US Senator from California is Dianne Feinstein (since 1992). She was Mayor of San Francisco from 1978 to 1988. She has not interrupted her endless communications on assumed systemic racism and sexism, except to cite the wildfires as justification for a bill that she co-sponsored earlier in August to improve preparedness for wildfires – at the federal level. 

Blaming Republicans at the federal level for everything seems ridiculous in one of the most progressive states in the Union. Republicans haven’t dominated the State’s representation in the US Congress since 1958. Republicans haven’t controlled both houses of the State legislature since 1970. California has not had a Republican governor since 2011: he was Arnold Schwarzenegger, a mild Republican who seized his chance once the Democratic incumbent was recalled by the people in 2003 for almost bankrupting the state. Democratic incumbency is chronic. Jerry Brown took over from Schwarzenegger. He had previously served as governor from 1975 to 1983. And Brown picked Newsom as deputy.

For the left-coast, woke end of the American progressive movement, which now dominates the Democratic Party, these wildfires confirm climate change, federal carelessness, conservative anti-science, and progressive intellectual superiority. Presidential candidate Joe Biden keeps saying that he would do whatever “the scientists” tell him to do. Failed presidential candidate, and Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders blames “the fossil fuel industry” for California’s current fires, and keeps referring to single events as evidence for climate change. This fallacy is perpetuated by California’s resident influencers, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a fine actor but no scientist. He’s also a hypocrite, like his politicians, for flying about in private jets for weekend breaks, while lecturing the public via social media on making sacrifices. 

Progressives have not learned from their own or the British government’s disastrous claims to “follow the science” on Covid-19. In fact, science is not singular; and all policies are trade-offs. California’s progressives are pseudo-scientists, hypocrites, and negative politicians. They confirm most Americans’ scepticism of the new Democratic Party: idealism before pragmatism, social justice before law and order, green energy before secure energy, irresponsibility before accountability, outward blame before inward reform, elite interests before popular interests. 

Less than three months before a general election, left-coast progressives are reminding undecided voters why they chose Trump as the least-worst option in 2016. But then progressives would just blame “populism,” the Russians, and stupid voters, as they did in 2016, instead of their own sorry record of governance.

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