In “Can You Still #Resist When Your State’s On Fire? A postcard from the Californiapocalypse,” Amy Wilentz, a journalist, writer, and English professor at the University of California, Irvine, details for The New York Times a truthy series of myths about California’s fiery, electric-less travails.
She establishes her credentials at the onset by letting her readers in far off Manhattan and in the more enlightened boroughs along the coasts know that she moved to California 17 years ago. That would be 2002.
Then, she said, “the very best argument people could summon for living here was the weather.” She goes on to gravely observe that California’s “weather events have definitely changed since I moved here in 2002. The droughts are longer and more severe, and when the rain does come, it falls for days in torrents that can and do cause fire-blighted topsoil to flood downhill in life-threatening mudslides, and then, as the seasons turn, come the fires again, blown by fierce and shifting winds.” Really?
Irvine, California was also my home. By 2002, I’d lived in California—first in the eastern High Sierra where I went to high school, then in Southern California—for 26 years. By 2002 I’d served in the California Army National Guard for 15 years, having been in the middle of the ’92 Los Angeles Riots and with numerous colleagues who had responded to what we casually referred to as the four seasons of California: flood, fire, earthquake, and riot.
Two years after that, I was elected to the California State Assembly. Irvine was the largest city in my district of almost 500,000 people. UC Irvine was my district’s largest employer. I’m guessing Wilentz never voted for me in my three election victories. By 2011, I had seen enough to know that California’s leftward tilt—and the policy fiascos that naturally follow—was likely unstoppable. I decamped to Texas.
Is Wilentz right about California? Let’s look at some of her more salient claims.
First of all, 17 years is a wink in time. Add one year to 17 and that’s 6 percent more time, more experience. Any given year in a series of 17 is likely to bring a host of new high—and low—temperatures as well as “unprecedented” rainfalls. Frankly, her observations reminded me of… California. California, with its Mediterranean climate of long stretches with little rain punctuated by heavy downpours as cold air from Alaska mixes with a stream of moisture-laden air from Hawaii.
Wilentz claims that California’s “droughts are longer and more severe.” That’d be news to scientists who calculate that, prior to 168 years of accurate record-keeping, the state underwent frequent megadroughts lasting 10 to 20 years over the past 1,000 years, with one drought that started in 850 A.D. and lasted 240 years, followed 50 years later by a dry spell that stretched on for another 180 years. The funny thing is, all this happened before the advent of modern capitalism.
She writes that “Every year the wildfires are bigger, more evil, more destructive, more likely to get you.” As an English professor, perhaps Wilentz has assigned her students the book “Two Years Before the Mast.” Its author, Richard Henry Dana Jr., is the namesake of Dana Point, a town a few miles south of Irvine. Published in 1840, Dana describes his impressions of coastal Southern California:
The only thing which diminishes its beauty is, that the hills have no large trees upon them, they having been all burnt by a great fire which swept them off about a dozen years before, and they had not yet grown up again. The fire was described to me by an inhabitant, as having been a very terrible and magnificent sight. The air of the whole valley was so heated that the people were obliged to leave the town and take up their quarters for several days upon the beach.
In 1993, nine years before Wilentz moved to California, a fire swept Laguna Beach, a community bordered to the north by Irvine. It burnt 16,000 acres, destroyed or nearly destroyed more than 400 homes, and caused more than a half-billion dollars in damage, making it one of the 20 most costly fires in American history.
These fires are inevitable. They occur in Central and Southern California’s coastal chaparral region. The thick brush and grasslands that characterize this area have no intrinsic economic value—they can’t be harvested for profit—but they must burn about every 15 to 25 years. Fire is part of their lifecycle.
California’s fire authorities know this well. So does the National Guard. Unfortunately, people forget—25 years is a long time in a person’s life.
In forgetting, they ignore, resist, or sue over fire authorities’ admonitions to clear a “defensible space” around their homes and structures. When the fire experts plan for a proscribed burn, environmental groups sue, fretting over the damage to species of plants and animals that might be harmed by the intentional fire.
Once those lawsuits are overcome, the local air quality management district has its say. Many times, the fire happens anyway on its own schedule. Whether due to a car’s malfunctioning catalytic converter or arson, the fire breaks out when the winds are the highest and the air is the driest.
We have a description for those conditions in California too: Santa Ana Winds—or, in the North, the more recently christened Diablo Winds defines the same phenomenon.
Contrary to what Gov. Gavin Newsom claims and Wilentz may think, these hot, dry conditions are not harbingering climate change, which, models suggest, should oversee an increase of both temperature and humidity. Rather, the Santa Anas happen when cool and dry Canadian high-pressure areas settle over the Great Basin region around Utah and Nevada.
This pressure differential sets in motion strong easterly winds that race downslope from California’s mountain spine and high deserts, compressing and heating as they flow. By the time the winds funnel through canyons on their way to the coast, they are hot and dry. Any spark will quickly turn into a blowtorch.
Preventing such conflagrations is only possible by removing the fuel that feeds them. And, in recent years, removing that fuel requires overcoming a morass of lawsuits and regulations—though Democrats Newsom, and Gov. Jerry Brown before him, did sign bills into law that marked the first tentative steps to make fuel removal easier in the state.
Wilentz goes on to criticize government-protected and regulated regional utility monopoly PG&E, assigning it blame for both deadly fires and blackouts in Northern California. PG&E, like California’s other public utilities, is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. They only make money on what they are allowed to make money on.
In 2006, the legislature approved and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 1368, a bill banning the importation of power from coal-fired power plants. I voted against the bill. One little-noticed provision in it was a clause that incentivized PG&E and the other utilities to build wind and solar generation by doubling the allowed profit on the investments. Build they did, spending billions on new powerlines to bring the green energy to the cities from far flung fields of turbines and panels.
But, a few years ago, PG&E, alarmed at the deteriorating condition of their thousands of miles of powerlines, petitioned the Public Utilities Commission for $4.84 billion to maintain and upgrade its lines. It was denied with the encouragement of so-called “consumer rights” groups. Eventually, PG&E was authorized to charge its ratepayers little less than half of what they needed.
No doubt the state’s politicians and the regulators they appoint were worried that electrical costs (boosted higher by the state’s push for renewables) might sour the public on green energy. Had the basic infrastructure of powerlines been as popular as windmills, perhaps 2018’s devastating Carr Fire wouldn’t have been sparked. But it was, and along with the other fires that year, 103 people were killed and more than $3.5 billion in damage was done, pushing PG&E into bankruptcy to shield it from $30 billion in liabilities traced to its faulty powerlines.
Of course, to maintain a fire, a spark needs fuel, and there’s plenty of that in modern California.
Before the arrival of large numbers of Europeans upon the discovery of gold in 1849, the local Native Americans used to regularly burn California’s forests to foster food production. That practice was stopped, but the timber was then harvested. Eventually, the spotted owl, a growing load of regulations, harvest permit fees, environmental lawsuits, and air quality concerns started to depress the harvest beginning in the early 1990s.
Now, employment in the state’s timber industry is half of what it was 25 years ago. This is likely why PG&E can’t find enough qualified people to trim the trees away from their powerlines. They’ve been thrown out of work and have gone into other professions or moved out of state.
Californezuela. Sadly, there does not seem to be solution. If there is one, the people of California are going to pay dearly.