Global warming and climate change are to blame for creating the strong winds and low humidity that are currently turning California into a tinderbox. Tracts of Golden State land are drying out, making them more prone to insect infestation, forest disease outbreaks and extended wildfire seasons. In response, two of the state’s main electricity companies, PG&E and SDG&E, have implemented brownouts, unplugging entire cities to minimize fire hazard risks.
The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, or CalFire, recently reported that “while wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the west is starting earlier and ending later each year. Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.”
The growing intensity of present day wildfires is a sobering reminder that greenhouse gas emissions and the global carbon footprint must be curbed, lest our planet be faced with irreversible climate consequences. Accelerated warming and the burning of fossil fuels trap more heat on the planet, shifting precipitation patterns and amplifying the risks of wildfires and their prolonged seasons.
Temperature rises from climate extremes likewise lead to drier air that quickly desiccates vegetation on the ground. These drought conditions transform the landscape, inviting infestations of ravenous, bark-eating pests to excessively feed on trees, making them more susceptible to woodland diseases. These ailing California forests are thus compromised further, pushing them to the brink of mortality.
High temperatures, strong winds, dry conditions and ailing flora are a formula for wildfire risks. But another variable to increased California wildfire occurrences is attributed to the sparks that can ignite the tinderbox; those sparks can be started by electrical utility infrastructure.
Shutdowns of California power grids are now the new normal, according to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates services throughout the Golden State to “safeguard the environment and assure access to safe and reliable utility infrastructure and services.” To protect California, the regulatory board has implemented a number of climate initiatives that include a utility wildfire mitigation plan calling for electrical power-downs to customers, especially during exceptionally hot and dry conditions.
Many customers in the Golden State oppose the electrical shutdown measures. So, what other solutions are there? California has been at the forefront of fighting climate change, even promoting renewable energy and solar power as go-to strategies. Similarly, insurance companies have been shying away from securing housing development in fire-prone locations, leading to a shift in household relocation trends. Plus, researchers — in academia, military and public and private sectors — are now studying fire-resistant or non-flammable materials to harden California buildings and houses in hopes of making them more resilient. Even with these ideas in place, the best practices will rely on curbing climate change, which increases the likelihood and frequency of wildfires in the first place.
Image via U.S. Department of Agriculture