California’s Ill-Conceived Forest Fire Prevention Shortcut

Instead of improving land and forest management, California is using a wildfire prevention shortcut, sporadically shutting down electrical lines during dry and windy weather. According to a study published in April by the Manhattan Institute, this strategy is costing the California economy millions. 

In 2017 and 2018, California experienced several mega-catastrophe wildfires. This included the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, practically destroyed the City of Paradise, and leveled 19,000 structures. The cause of this wildfire has been traced to downed power lines installed and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E). PG&E has the most service territory in California, covering 70,000 miles. Its lines have also been responsible for 44 out of the 45 large wildfires caused by downed power lines over the past 10 years. 

According to the Manhattan Institute report, faulty electrical equipment was only to blame for 12 percent of California’s fires in 2017, but half of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires can be traced to electrical equipment. In 2017 alone, faulty electrical equipment in PG&E territory was responsible for burning 228,271 acres, destroying 8,892 structures, and killing 44 people. CalFire determined that 12 of those 14 fires were caused by faulty equipment owned by PG&E. 

To avoid future fires of this kind, California’s governor and PG&E began imposing “Public Safety Power Shutoffs.” This means that during windy and dry weather, power companies shut off electricity. In October 2019, 1 million residents were affected by outages imposed by PG&E, CNN reports. Of that number, 42,000 customers had their power shut off for 55 hours. 

This new report demonstrates that these preemptive shutoffs impose significant costs on thousands of California residents and businesses, while acting as a cheap form of insurance for the electrical company. PG&E was forced to pay 13.5 billion for the role their equipment played in starting fires in California from 2015-2019, reports the New York Times

Preemptively shutting down power lines costs PG&E significantly less than paying for fire damage. Though this strategy may make sense for PG&E, it makes no sense for their customers. 

The Manhattan Institute study weighs the probability of electrical-caused wildfires and the damage caused by such fires with the economic consequences of preemptive electrical shutdowns. Even after taking into account loss of life, the destruction of homes, businesses, and land, as well as the cost of fighting a fire the study ultimately found that preemptive electrical outages cause a higher amount of economic damage. The study estimates that outages impose a cost of $160-$320 upon each customer per day.  

Just like the current debate between continuing COVID-19 lockdowns and reopening the economy, it is difficult to compare economic losses with the potential loss of life. However, Californians should not have to choose between preemptive electrical shutdowns and wildfires—not when there are other options for keeping power lines safe in dry and windy weather. 

The Manhattan Institute’s report suggests several alternatives to preemptive shutdowns. It recommends the active monitoring of equipment by both PG&E personnel and as well as remote technologies like drones. 

Additionally, the report suggests that PG&E could begin to implement smart grid technology. A smart grid would detect a downed or sparking line and could then be shut off in isolation while simultaneously rerouting power to customers through a different line. 

Further, PG&E should consider putting some power lines underground in their most at-risk territories. Underground power lines are often cost-prohibitive, but if done gradually and only where necessary such an infrastructure investment might be worth it. 

Anaheim, California may serve as a helpful model here. Since 1990, the city gradually has been burying its power lines, funded through a 4 percent surcharge on electricity bills, according to the Anaheim city government website.

Why aren’t these other options being considered? It might be that PG&E has a monopoly on its service territory and thus has less incentive to invest in the infrastructure for safer transmission lines.

Even worse than PG&E’s reluctance to invest in new infrastructure is its problem maintaining the infrastructure it already has in place. The report found that some of PG&E’s transmission and distribution equipment in high-risk fire areas is more than 100 years old. Further, PG&E has not been replacing this old equipment at a fast enough rate to ensure safe operations. 

Another report by a California commission found that the Camp Fire was caused by a power line, built over a century ago, that runs through a heavily wooded and mountainous area known for experiencing strong winds. The commission determined that PG&E did not properly maintain this line and was thus responsible for the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.  

The company plans to replace equipment and trim trees around their power lines over the next ten years, but this should be done much more quickly and other measures listed should be implemented as well. 

PG&E is not the only one choosing the easy way out. Both California and the federal government have ignored their obligations to protect citizens and provide them with competent infrastructure. For too long California legislators and governors have deferred to the environmental lobby, refusing adequate forest thinning measures, brush clearing, and have not practiced enough prescribed burns. These policies ensure that California continues to remain at risk for bigger and deadlier wildfires.  

If the California state government and PG&E are willing to put their citizens and customers first then both will employ alternative policies for preventing forest fires, policies that do not harm an already struggling economy. 

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About Krystina Skurk

Krystina Skurk is a research assistant at Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C. She received a master's degree in politics from Hillsdale’s Van Andel School of Statesmanship. She is a former fellow of the John Jay Institute, a graduate of Regent University, and a former teacher at Archway Cicero, a Great Hearts charter school.

Photo: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images

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