Issues & Insights

California’s Blackouts: A Burning History, A Dark Present, A Dim Future If Nothing Changes

Editor’s note: This has been excerpted with permission from the Pacific Research Institute. To read the entire report, click here.

Early on the morning of November 8, 2018, electrical transmission lines in the Pulga area of Butte County owned by Pacific Gas and Electric started what became known as the Camp Fire.

“The tinder dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread, rapidly burning into Pulga to the east and west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported in May 2019 after its investigation found PG&E at fault for the fire.

A second ignition site “determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E … was consumed by the original fire.”

The Camp Fire, possibly ignited by a faulty C-hook, burned through 153,336 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures, and killed 86 people. It was the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in California history, taking more than twice the number of lives as the next deadliest fire in the state, the Griffith Park fire of 1933, which killed 29.

PG&E, responsible for at least 1,500 fires since 2014, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2019, as it reportedly had “no choice … given the flood of lawsuits and wildfire liabilities it estimates could be up to $30 billion.” About six months later, it agreed to pay $1 billion in compensation to “more than a dozen California cities, counties and agencies for losses resulting from deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment.”

In September 2019, the utility agreed to pay an $11 billion insurance settlement to resolve insurance claims over the Camp Fire and the wine country fires of 2017. It’s possible prosecutors will eventually file criminal charges against the utility and its executives for their role in the fire.

Roughly one month later, PG&E began a series of “public safety power shutoffs” to reduce the risk of wildfires. “Given the continued and growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires, and as an additional precautionary measure following the 2017 and 2018 wildfires,” the utility announced, “we are expanding and enhancing our Community Wildfire Safety Program to further reduce wildfire risks and help keep our customers and the communities we serve safe.

“This includes expanding our Public Safety Power Shutoff program beginning with the 2019 wildfire season to include all electric lines that pass through high fire-threat areas — both distribution and transmission.” The power outages that began on the morning of October 9 caused roughly 2 million people to lose their power at its peak.

The blackouts continued throughout the month. By October 26, the power to roughly 2.8 million customers was being turned off in what was called “the state’s largest — and potentially longest — deliberate blackout ever.”

Two days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that “never before in California history have more than 2 million people gone five days without electrical power because of the intentional safety policy of a utility.” The blackouts continued throughout the month. By October 26, the power to roughly 2.8 million customers was being turned off.

PG&E began rolling blackouts the afternoon of Friday, October 25, “and by Sunday evening the utility had cut current to 940,000 homes and businesses, affecting more than 2 million people, with one more phase to come in Fresno and Madera counties.” Despite the public safety power shutoffs, the wildfires reached the point by October 27 that Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. It was effective across the entire state.

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  • The smell of schadenfreude is strong in this forum today. California is burning because of climate change. It is the same climate change which dropped record amounts of water on several cities in the last hurricanes.

    Political prejudice has blinded some to the real threats here. Let’s discuss it instead of taking crude shots at environmentalists. We can start with the Acidififation of the Oceans. Who is ready?

      • Mister Topps, I see you dodge my offer to discuss the specifics of Climate Change, notably the Acidification of the Oceans from the additional Carbon Dioxide, most of which is sequestered in the seas. Read up on that aspect alone, and it will chill you to the bones.

    • CO2 levels have changed a bit lately, but global average temperatures have not changed with them. You’re simpleton theory does not hold up to empirical evidence and is deemed garbage. We’re debating forest fire prevention and power utility regulation here not fairy dust.

      • I see you dodged the debate of Acidification of the Oceans, another consequence of too much Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere.

        But I have lived here my 75 years, an only now do we have those large fires. I learned in 1982 earning my Master of Science in this field how it all works. I suggest you take the necessary calculus and thermodynamics we had to take to understand it.

        Political prejudice has ruined my country, letting our enemies determine our president.

    • Acidification of the oceans has nothing to do with California wildfires and gross mismanagement of electrical utilities. If you really want to go off topic, let’s talk deer hunting as I had a great weekend.

      Regarding you’re claim in later comments that we’ve never had these large fires; facts don’t agree. “A U.S. Geological Survey of the data showed that California wildfires peaked in 1980. Since then, “there have been fewer and fewer wildfires” in the state. UCLA professor Jon Keeley agrees. “The claim commonly made in research papers and the media that fire activity is increasing throughout the western USA is certainly an over-statement,” Keeley said in a research paper. These statements are confirmed by data from Cal Fire, the government office which has also documented a sharp decrease in acres burned since 2008.” If there are fewer fires and fewer acres burned, then there’s no crisis and to the degree that AGW has had any impact, it’s been beneficial which warming almost always is.

      • Studies by real climate professionals say otherwise, and so do the data. Go read the short IPCC Summary with the graphs of conditions and make your own decisions.

        Do not comment until you see it.

  • I read that PG+E asked for permission to bury the cables in the most dangerous areas but the state said no. My only problem is that refugees from Cali keep moving to my state and voting for the same stuff they just ran away from.

  • You want to fix CA? Vote republican. The democrats have destroyed the once beautiful state. They turned it into a sewer of fascists and illegals, and have promoted hatred of America. CA deserves what it gets if the voters keep eating one another.

  • Please allow me to respond in kind: This article does everything but make it clear that in over a hundred years PG&E operating, it is only in the last few we have had these fires. It is Climate, not a sudden change in the quality of the infrastructure which causes this, just like it increases the gross amounts of water in storms and hurricanes.

    Californians are moving out because too many of you have moved in, wanting to get some of what we built ourselves. My house was built in 1957 to sell for $12,000. I can get about one hundred times that now. It is because too many of you wanted in, but you brought your trashy ways, and soon, we lost our state to those who ruined their own state.

    The blackouts do not affect me directly because our house is primarily powered by the Sun through our PV system which paid back in three years in gasoline replacement since it also powers our two electric cars. Besides the free fuel, we love the facts of no tune-ups, no oil changes, no transmission work, no emissions checks, and no engine maintenance at all. You will LOVE yours.

    Our best sources of electrical power for utilities is now renewables plus battery storage. While the two Vogtle nukes in Georgia keep raising their projected rates for cost overruns in construction, now over 15 cents/kWh, Los Angeles just bought daytime power from PV plus battery storage for 1.997 cents/kWh and 3.3 cents/kWh at night from the batteries. No coal or gas or nuke plant can match that, and renewables have no pollutants.

    The world has changed. The Sun may go from East to West, but the future goes from West to East.

  • As California fires rage, nobody is taking responsibility for the unlimited “fuel” for the fires. Rather than addressing ways to reduce the amount of “fuel” awaiting the next spark, homeless campfire, or lightning strike, California’s Governor Newsom’s solution is for more litigation and a reorganization of a utility company to prevent devastating wildfires.

    It’s a shared responsibility of all parties as to why we’ve accumulated so much fuel for a fire and continue to allow its growth. Specifically, the Federal regulations forbid forest management, and builders continue to build wood tinder box homes adjacent to the Federal stockpile of “fuel” for any fires in the forest, and homeowners do very little to fireproof their homes sitting amongst all that “fuel” for the fire.

    Obama-era forestry restructuring regulations from 2012 waylaid already established preventative maintenance measures that could have averted power outages and raging conflagrations resulting in the need for people to be relocated to safer grounds at the expense of the federal government.

    Rather than taking responsibility for decades of policies that avoided safety precautions like careful and controlled burning, Governor Gavin Newsom is blaming PG&E for not stepping up to solve the mess caused by previous bad public and private management. How will forcing PG&E to shoulder the financial burden of preventing and cleaning up after California fires affect consumers, and reduce the fuel awaiting the next spark?

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