Fuel for the electrical fire

Utility equipment sparks blazes, but climate change stokes them.

Late on the hot and sunny morning of July 13, 2021, a distribution troubleman for Pacific Gas & Electric drove up the Feather River Canyon in Northern California to check out a possibly blown fuse on one of the utility’s lines. His route took him past the blackened skeletons of trees burned by the Camp Fire in 2018. Sparked by PG&E’s equipment, it raged through the town of Paradise, killing at least 86 people.

The troubleman — delayed by roadwork — reached the location of the tripped fuse, near the Cresta Dam, at 4:40 p.m. Sure enough, two of the three fuses on the Buck Line had been tripped. As his truck’s cherry-picker bucket lifted him up to the fuses, he suddenly noticed a fire, estimated at about 600 square feet in size. There was a Douglas fir leaning against the line nearby.

 

He shut off the third fuse, killing power to the system, then descended to the ground to call dispatch, emptying first one, then another extinguisher on the flames, to no avail. Shortly thereafter Cal Fire aircraft arrived, followed by a ground crew. But the grass, shrubs and trees were simply too dry — baked by the kiln-like combination of drought and hot temperatures — and the flames swiftly got away from them, crawling and then exploding up the canyon’s slopes.

By the next day, the 600-square-foot blaze had grown to 600 acres and was spreading north and east at a rate of thousands of acres per day. It joined up with the 2,000-acre Fly Fire — which may have been started by a white fir toppling onto PG&E electrical equipment — and leveled the town of Greenville, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. The pyrocumulonimbus plume it spawned rose thousands of feet into the air and sent smoke wafting across the West, affecting the air quality of communities as far away as Colorado. More than six weeks after it started, in early September, the Dixie Fire was still raging, having burned more than 800,000 acres of forest and hundreds of structures. And it was just one of a dozen or so blazes tearing across the state and the region.

PG&E’s equipment, with some help from that errant Douglas fir, may have provided the spark that ignited California’s second-largest fire on record — the exact cause is still under investigation — but climate change clearly fueled it and numerous other recent megafires, from last year’s record-breaking conflagrations in Colorado, to this summer’s destructive blazes in Montana and Oregon. The entire West has been heating up significantly over the past century, exacerbating the effects of two decades of drought and priming dry forests to burn more intensely than ever before.

15,000
Number of firefighters on the frontlines of 16 major California fires as of Sept. 1.

1.88 million
Acres burned in California this year as of Sept. 1.

2.68 million
Total acreage of 86 large fires burning across the Western U.S. as of Sept. 1.

August 30
Date on which the U.S. Forest Service closed all national forests in California due to extreme wildfire hazard.

80 degrees Fahrenheit
California’s average temperature for July 2021, the hottest July ever for the state as well as for Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

153,000
Acres of forest in California’s carbon offset program that had been burned in wildfires this year as of Aug. 24.

1,282
Number of structures destroyed by the Dixie Fire as of Sept. 1, when it had reached a size of 844,801 acres, making it the second-largest fire in California history.

1.03 million acres
Size of the largest fire in California history — the August Complex — which burned in the northern part of the state in 2020.

811
Number of structures destroyed by the Caldor Fire as of Sept. 1; an additional 35,000 structures were threatened.

   

Utility ignitions, payouts, plunges

Some of the most destructive fires in California history were ignited by electrical utility equipment, and Northern California’s Pacific Gas & Electric is one of the worst offenders in this regard.

6
Minimum number of the 20 most destructive fires ignited by electrical equipment in California.

122
Minimum number of fatalities resulting from California fires sparked by electrical equipment.

84
Number of counts of manslaughter PG&E pled guilty to for its role in starting the 2018 Camp Fire, which leveled the town of Paradise. The official death toll was 86, but an investigation by the Chico Enterprise-Record found an additional 50 deaths indirectly linked to the fire.

$13.5 billion
Amount of a PG&E fund — half of it made up of company stock — for compensating victims of past fires caused by the utility’s equipment.

$2.6 billion
Amount by which the value of the stock in the compensation fund dropped after PG&E indicated it may have ignited the Dixie Fire this year.

$15 billion to $20 billion
Estimated cost of PG&E’s project to bury 10,000 miles of powerlines to reduce wildfire hazard.

A partially burned power pole is suspended by electrical lines as the Dixie Fire Plumas County on July 25, 2021.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Infographic design: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
 
Sources: Cal Fire, National Interagency Fire Center, Documents from the U.S. District Court Northern District Of California, PG&E, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

We welcome reader letters. Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public LandsEmail him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.