The blackouts imposed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in mid-October affected hundreds of thousands of residents throughout California, causing agricultural operations to come to a virtual standstill in some areas while costing the state’s overall economy as much as $2.6 billion, according to some estimates.
It also fueled a valuable conversation about the condition of our forests and the apparent lack of preparedness among our government agencies and utilities.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was quick to criticize the utility for imposing the blackouts in parts of 34 counties to reduce the chance of fierce winds knocking down or toppling trees into power lines. According to media reports, Newsom said Californians should be “outraged” and “infuriated” at PG&E even though he agreed the blackouts were necessary.
But some say Newsom and other public officials were caught flat-footed by the outage. Moreover, some political observers complained to Politico that Newsom’s “public fury was late in coming” – after the blackouts “had already taken their toll on millions of lives and state businesses.”
To be sure, PG&E deserves at least some of the blame. The company wanted to reduce its exposure to more lawsuits after investigators determined its power lines and converters sparked at least a dozen wildfires in 2017. Faulty PG&E equipment was also blamed for starting the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed at least 85 people.
But while many Californians were inconvenienced by the blackouts, University of California Cooperative Extension fire scientist Lenya Quinn-Davidson told Time magazine she worries that too much emphasis is being placed on utilities as the cause of fires.
There are many other potential causes, she notes, including lightning, arson and sparks from dragging chains. All of these factors are compounded by “lack of fuel management, poor land-use planning, and homes that aren’t ready for fire and aren’t resilient to fire,” she told the magazine.
The Wall Street Journal went further, declaring in an editorial that opposition to logging and prescribed burns in California’s forests have combined with a litigious culture to cause an overgrowth of trees and underbrush on forest floors that serve as kindling for wildfires.
“Blame the state’s largest blackout on a perfect storm of bad policies,” the Journal editors wrote. U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., agrees.
“Decades of frivolous lawsuits, foot dragging bureaucracies, and a virtual ‘no touch’ forest policy have coupled with onerous regulations on utilities on where, when, how, and what kind of electricity to generate,” LaMalfa wrote in a Facebook post. “It has all come home to roost.”
Newsom, whose approval rating is lower than that of President Donald Trump, has every reason to take the criticism to heart. A recall effort appears to be gaining at least a little steam; we saw booths gathering signatures at several supermarkets recently, and a local tea party group is spreading the word online.
Sudden rolling blackouts tend to fuel such movements. Just ask former Gov. Gray Davis.