IT WAS not supposed to be this bad. After years of punishing drought and wildfires, California had received more rain and snow, so this year’s wildfire season was supposed to be milder than the devastation of the previous two. Yet there is a massive fire raging in Northern California and another threatening iconic stretches of Los Angeles, to name just two. The state braced Tuesday for more fire-fueling Diablo winds in the north and Santa Ana winds in the south.
These winds aren’t new, and their ferocity does not seem to be human-caused. But there are likely substantial human influences on the fire disasters. Scientists say climate change might be making the winds hotter. Hotter temperatures generally also dry out vegetation — creating more fuel for when the fires occur. “It is fair to say that everything that’s occurring today is about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would have been if the same Santa Ana wind event were happening 100 years ago,” Park Williams, an assistant research professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, told the New York Times.
There must also be a spark to light the fuel. Electrical utility Pacific Gas & Electric has made life miserable for thousands of Californians by shutting off their power when the winds kick up, in hopes its lines won’t ignite more fires. State officials found in May that broken PG&E lines caused last year’s Camp Fire, the state’s most destructive wildfire ever. The company failed to replace a 99-year-old tower long after its projected useful life. PG&E subsequently filed for bankruptcy and purged its board. Though the spark for today’s fires is still unknown, the company has admitted that one of its jumpers broke near the origin of the Kincade blaze, and that electricity had continued to flow through it despite preventive blackouts.
Whether damaged infrastructure is the cause this time, the blackouts have contributed to the sense that PG&E is desperately trying to contain the consequences of infrastructure mismanagement. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who took office in January, has pushed safety upgrades to the state’s electrical infrastructure. But the state also bears its share of blame for failing to oversee PG&E as the utility continued to use 99-year-old towers.
There is a bigger lesson for California, as for every other state. Hardening the nation to the effects of climate change will not just require sea walls around large coastal cities. It will demand expensive infrastructure changes and shifts in routine all over the economy — as with power lines surrounded by vegetation that is increasingly dry and combustible. Some of these changes will be unexpected, unwelcome and difficult to predict. Government and corporate leaders must nevertheless try. The first goal, about which the Trump administration remains inexcusably negligent, is to restrain the warming as much as possible. The second is to prepare for the warming that is already on its way.