The entire west coast is experiencing severe, record-breaking droughts, causing our forests to become susceptible to increasingly destructive wildfires. In Northern California, vast areas were devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire that engulfed the town of Paradise. The culprit for the flame-inducing conditions that enabled such widespread damage is climate change. These conditions included exceptional winds and extended drought. Additionally, the fire occurred very late in the fire season, when the rainy season would have normally begun, and which would have lowered the temperatures and brought fire retarding moisture to the region. Unfortunately, we know that was not what occurred.
The Camp Fire left many residents trapped in an almost inescapable inferno, and more than 80 people were killed and thousands of lives were changed by the flames’ lasting damage. The question remains as to whether one of the nation’s largest investor-owned utilities shares in the responsibility for this historic blaze. Fire investigators have already concluded that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) equipment is responsible for 17 out of 21 major fires in Northern California in 2017, and there is an ongoing investigation to determine the company’s potential role in the Camp Fire. The liability faced by PG&E is one of the reasons the company entered into bankruptcy, and two other California investor-owned utilities are also facing severe financial risk at least in part because of state law and climate related issues.
Our daily lives depend on reliable electricity and, in California, utility companies are required to build and install their equipment – including transmission lines – to meet basic safety codes developed by local, state, and federal authorities. California also requires companies to keep records of the equipment to show it is in compliance with these codes. But climate change is creating more extreme conditions that have not yet been incorporated into utility safety codes. Additionally, when the safety codes are updated, it will take time and money for them to be fully implemented.
While utility companies need to operate as businesses in order to be successful, they also have a moral responsibility to follow accepted safety practices developed by the government, and to alert authorities when safety codes are insufficient to provide safe service. PG&E and other utilities should work with the appropriate government agencies to modernize safety codes to withstand the challenges we are facing.
Climate change is increasing the bar for what is needed to provide safe electrical service – bringing weather extremes, sea level rise, expanding vector-borne diseases, and other threats. That’s why we must begin now with the policies and investments needed to meet those adaption and mitigation challenges. It will be a long and expensive road to develop the resiliency we need, but we must work to ensure we have utilities that are capable of safely providing reliable and affordable electricity. Failure to do so will only lead to more devastation and mounting costs of climate change.