With the death toll well above 40, a couple of hundred people still missing, and responders still struggling to get a cluster of November wildfires under control, initial reports are suggesting that utility power lines may have helped spark the blazes, while a senior Los Angeles fire official blames climate change for the intensity of the fires.
Both Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison “are facing intense scrutiny” for their possible roles in the Camp Fire in Butte County and the Woolsey Fire in LA County, Greentech Media reports. “Firefighters have not yet determined the cause of either fire,” Greentech notes. “But in a state where utilities are facing massive public scrutiny and potential financial ruin for their roles in wildfires of recent years, they were enough to spook investors,” with shares of both companies falling sharply in Monday trading.
Last year, state investigations pointed to PG&E lines as the cause of several fires that killed at least 15 people and destroyed 5,000 homes. The company “could face bankruptcy if it is found liable for the estimated US$15 billion in damages caused by last year’s Tubbs Fire—the most destructive wildfire in California until the Camp Fire usurped that title this week,” Greentech notes.
“Southern California Edison hasn’t faced a financial burden as heavy as PG&E’s, but it has been found at fault for some major blazes.”
The state legislature responded to the companies’ predicament with a new law that allows utilities to increase customers’ power bills to cover the cost of wildfire damage.
On the front lines of the Woolsey Fire, meanwhile, Los Angeles fire chief Daryl Osby pointed to climate change as the reason this year’s blazes are more “devastating and destructive than in years past,” The Guardian reports. “The fact of the matter is if you look at the state of California, climate change is happening statewide,” Osby said, and “it is going to be here for the foreseeable future”.
This year’s fire season started early and is on track to break records for the second year in a row. “Crucially, this has put a crunch on resources,” The Guardian states, citing an interview with Osby. “For an immediate example, the Camp Fire in the north, which devastated Paradise, has diverted resources that drier areas of southern California could once rely on for backup.”
“It did have an effect on our strategy,” Osby said. “Typically, we would rely on our partners to the north to come. But they are fighting a major fire up there.”
Another problem, InsideClimate News reports, is that the depth of the wildfire crisis is already outpacing the projections in a state report issued just months ago, linking climate change to the increased frequency and severity of the blazes. “What we have been observing has consistently been outpacing what we’ve been predicting,” said wildfire modeler LeRoy Westerling, professor of management of complex systems at the University of California, Merced.
“The report estimated that the average area burned by wildfires would increase 77% by 2100, and the frequency of extreme wildfires would increase by nearly 50% if global greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high rate,” InsideClimate writes. But “Westerling said wildfires are likely to continue to outpace those recent projections because the underlying global climate models used underestimate precipitation changes in California, including periods of prolonged drought.”