What’s to blame for wine country fires? PG&E isn’t the only suspect

The view a California Highway Patrol helicopter pilot saw while trying to reach people trapped by fire the night of Oct. 8.
The view a California Highway Patrol helicopter pilot saw while trying to reach people trapped by fire the night of Oct. 8. California Highway Patrol

The fires of October are contained, for the moment. The mop-up has started. Disbelief and adrenalin are giving way to the long, acrid slog of assessing the losses and apportioning blame.

Especially blame. The deadliest week in California fire history had scarcely begun when, on Oct. 10, the Bay Area News Group reported that at least 10 of the first 911 calls in Sonoma County involved downed Pacific Gas and Electric transformers and power lines sparking and arcing.

The news was hardly a surprise. Sped by ferocious Diablo winds gusting at 50 mph or more in some places, multiple fires were roaring in and around the wine country of Northern California. More than 40 fatalities have been confirmed so far, with more than 5,700 structures destroyed, including more than 2,800 homes just in hard-hit Santa Rosa. State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones last week said the loss estimates had topped $1 billion.

Determining the cause will take weeks, if not months. At least two investigations have been launched into the disaster.

Nonetheless, last week brought the first of what will surely be a mountain of lawsuits against PG&E. It has been only six months since the state fined the utility $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that ignited the 2015 Butte Fire in Amador County, scorching nearly 71,000 acres and killing two people.

Wayne and Jennifer Harvell, who lost their home in the Santa Rosa suburb of Coffey Park, charged in San Francisco Superior Court that PG&E failed to properly maintain their power lines, causing the destruction of their home on Mocha Lane and those of more than 1,000 of their neighbors. Coffey Park, a modest neighborhood whose occupants included local firefighters, has been reduced to a moonscape, covered in ash.

But while Northern California waits to learn whether PG&E was negligent again, it may not hurt to think about other factors. Ancillary lessons are suggesting themselves, and from a rebuilding standpoint, they’re at least as valuable as figuring out whom to take to court.

There’s the question, for instance, of where the fire hazard zones actually are now. Coffey Park, for example, was supposed to be relatively safe.

Fire hazard maps drawn in the early 2000s by state fire officials placed it outside the “very severe” hazard zone to the east, nearer the rural mountains and wildlands. As a result, the development didn’t have to comply with the stringent regulations that apply to buildings in riskier fire zones.

In theory, any fire would have to jump the 101 Freeway to reach the manicured grid of tidy tract houses. And yet when the wind kicked up and Tubbs Fire blew in, its sheer force was such that the development was deluged with a sideways rain of flaming embers.

“These fires were burning with a ferocity I haven’t seen in 31 years,” CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton, who grew up in Sonoma County, told an editorial board member. “The flames were sheeting across the ground like floodwater.”

Max Moritz, a fire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, compared the Tubbs Fire to the Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires that regularly rip down the canyons into Southern California suburbs, with the added twist of bigger, denser Northern California vegetation, dried like mega-kindling.

Such fires have not been the norm in cooler, damper NorCal, but the occurrence of such a monster here this year “forces us to consider that this kind of fire could happen in lots of places,” Moritz said. That means not only recalculating risk, but remapping for vulnerabilities such as the age of the housing stock, the types of vegetation, and the state of the roads and communications in case of evacuations.

And it will necessarily mean rethinking building codes and insurance in parts of the state that once seemed safer, an expensive proposition. Great swaths of Northern California might have to learn to live like homeowners in fire-prone Malibu.

Which is another takeaway: preparation. One of the most effective ways to protect a neighborhood from wildfire is brush clearance and landscaping to give firefighters a “defensible space.”

Forcing homeowners to comply with vegetation management regulations isn’t easy, even in high-risk areas, but the state and municipalities may need to tighten such regulations. Last week, the Oakland Firesafe Council, a nonprofit working to reduce risk in the Oakland Hills, did an eye-opening compliance spot-check in the area devastated by a deadly fire 26 years ago this weekend. Despite scars from that lethal catastrophe, up to a third of private properties and about half of public properties were out of compliance with clearance regulations, with redwoods dangling over rooftops and shrubbery overgrowing the grounds of private schools.

Running through these early insights is the question of climate change, and how that should determine development. Almost 40 million people inhabit California, and their presence alone is a fire hazard in a widening share of this state.

Homes with unscreened chimneys and shake shingled roofs and yards shaded with tall juniper trees and fragrant eucalyptus are bombs waiting to go off in the event of a wildfire. Not to mention the 4.2 million or so power poles that bring phone, cable and electricity to Californians.

Even if PG&E’s poles were victims of the recent fires, and not causes, their toppling and burning blocked roads, and their failure hampered emergency communications. Making utilities swap out wood for stronger metal or concrete means higher utility bills, as the cost will surely be passed to ratepayers.

Undergrounding power lines is another choice, but that’s even more costly. Plus, poles are a key component in the rollout of “5G” wireless networks, which will guide self-driving cars, and connect the “internet of things” to Californians’ households.

In other words, long after the lawsuits from these fires have settled, Californians will still be looking at tradeoffs. And wondering, no doubt, whom to blame.