Did Negligence Cause the California Wildfires?

fire, grass, power lines, truck
The Silver Dollar Fire burns below transmission lines on July 3, 2017. Photo credit: Mitch Giddens / NWCG
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The flames that have ripped across Northern California’s wine country over the past week scorched almost a quarter-million acres and destroyed 6,700 homes. A majority of the 42 who died were senior citizens — some had celebrated half-century old marriages and survived World War II.

One couple spent their final moments holding each other, as fire consumed the house they’d lived in for the last four decades.

The causes of the inferno have not been confirmed — guesses range from a discarded cigarette to arson — but reports emerged that numerous residents had dialed 911 prior to the fires to notify authorities of downed power lines and exploding electrical transformers. No tapes of such calls have yet been produced.

To the extent that these reports are sound, it may be that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) — California’s largest public energy utility — is responsible for the fires.

Making a move that may be the first of many legal actions, a Santa Rosa couple who lost their abode sued the company Tuesday for failing to maintain its power lines.

PG&E, whose stock has plunged 18.7% since October 9, has been found liable for several wildfires in the past. Following a 1994 Sierra Nevada blaze, the company was convicted of 739 counts of criminal negligence for tree-trimming violations.

In April, regulators fined PG&E $8.3 million for maintenance failures that had led to the incineration of 500 Northern Californian homes in 2015.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, called for the company to be “split” and expelled from California should its negligence be tied to the recent North Bay fires.

The damage inflicted around Santa Rosa will far surpass those of past wildfires. Economic losses are expected to reach $3 to $6 billion. If lawsuits pile up and investigators decide to pursue charges, PG&E could face liabilities exceeding $12 billion.

Aware of that grim prospect, CEO Geisha Williams points to a larger threat: climate change. During the recent drought emergency (declared “over” by Governor Jerry Brown in April), record high temperatures made California’s fire-prone vegetation even more combustible.

Breezy, bay-hugging San Francisco hit 106 degrees in September. Outside the state, warmer oceans have fueled the recent Category 4 and 5 hurricanes that have devastated parts of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

PG&E has earned praise for the job it is doing to restore power and gas in the impacted areas.

Hot dry winds raged at over 70mph when three fires each tore through a different county Monday night. Even if PG&E’s power lines had been in impeccable condition, they likely would have still been subject to some damage from gale.

Because California has already passed the most ambitious climate laws in the country, the burden falls on utilities and regulators to guard citizens against hazardous conditions and minimize the economic damages of natural disasters.

But if the ferocious storms of 2017 were an augury of seasons to come, it may be naive to believe that trimmed trees and fire-proof poles, though necessary, can alone prevent another deadly blaze.

In the video below, VICE News follows a crew of firefighters for 24 hours as they attempt to extinguish raging flames in Northern California.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from fire (Mitch Giddens / NWCG).

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

8 responses to “Did Negligence Cause the California Wildfires?”

  1. Cathleen McGuire says:

    could be the oligarchs purposefully testing their free direct energy chops.

  2. Mik says:

    I read on WWW that Russia had been caught hacking our energy grid.

    Maybe they, or their NK allies hacked into the grid in CA and overloaded it in those areas. To hurt our economy… Or simply to test the effect?

    • Cloudchopper says:

      I take it you are serious and this is not sarcasm.

      Actually it would be about time for some other country to mess with the USA as the USA has messed with practically every country on the globe.

      The Russia hysteria is being so overdone that most people are sick and tired of it and many are making fun of it, blaming anything and everything that goes wrong in the US on Putin and Russia.

    • Mik says:

      I’m aware that my comment sounds alarmist, but this is a serious issue.

      One can infer that Russians were exploring the possibility to interfere with our energy supply during an attack, or prior. But what about the possibility of causing energy overloads to cause fires? I’m not an energy specialist so I have no idea how the computers link to energy systems, but I think it is a legitimate question…

      And given the fact that recent articles have reported that the former Soviet Union had created detailed maps of all major USA cities, showing heights of buildings and other wartime related details, this shows that I am NOT being an alarmist. Russia obviously is taking the potential for war with us far more seriously than we have, and it leaves us incredibly vulnerable in a tech driven world wherein they are already using the web to hack into our energy centers, influence our politics, and possibly voting machines. Russia, in fact, hacked into election computers in 26 states. Half the USA!!!

      So yeah, a little alarm might be in order?

  3. Joel W says:

    Someone may correct me if I am wrong, but it is my understanding the eco-freaks out there fought to ban controlled burns of the underbrush and such. If that is the case, then the environmental activists, and the pols who made it so are absolutely to blame.

    • Mik says:

      The areas are too big, and too close to population centers to controlled burns. Environmental activists are not against that kind of program anyway. Typically they are trying to protect your air and water quality, and wildlife from being decimated by commercial development and abuse. Such as over fishing, etc. Calling this people “freaks” is pathetic. They are highly educated, patriotic Americans with a commitment to preserving and improving natural resources, and animal and oceanic habitats.

    • Joel W says:

      Well considering there was a law or something that didn’t allow for irrigation from a reservoir to population area, due to the delta smelt (a bait fish), which was I large part of the drought Cali suffered through a few years ago, yes they are freaks. And educated means exactly nothing. A college degree is worth no more than the paper it is printed on these days. And I am not advocating destroying the environment, but there is a severely lunacy in many eco-activists. One example is wind farms. Oil is evil, windmills help save the environment, they scream. Except the very uncomfortable reality that wind farms are responsible for the slaughter of migratory birds, including endanger species such as the Golden Eagle and bats, which are absolutely important pollinators. But they won’t talk about that cuz ‘Big Oil blah blah blah. That is lunacy. And I may be wrong a bout California, but there are states that controlled burns are illegal due to eco-activism. Many environmental policies are detrimental, even deadly, to humans, with no return value.

      And stat that eco-activists as a whole are patriotic, is just false. Most in that ideological mindset hate America and want to turn the US into a 3rd world hell hole, cuz ‘fainess’ or whatever there excuse du jour of the week is.

    • Mik says:

      You’re out of touch with reality. Environmentalists helped the urban USA clean-up smog, to the point that it is seldom even seen now in areas where people could hardly breath in the past. Rivers and lakes that were highly polluted are clean, and fish bearing. But it isn’t enough. It is clear that oil & fossil fuels are driving climate change, globally. Wind farms may kill a few birds. Admittedly. But how many humans have been killed by oil related wars, in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Afghanistan? Or by increasingly extreme weather patterns? We could easily switch to Solar energy for homes, transportation, and small businesses. Many countries are already planning in that direction. America should be leading the way; but unfortunately small minded uneducated racists and ideologues voted in a pathological liar with no vision for progress as Head of State. You seem to live in a ideological fantasy that ignores real issues, and real achievements. Your claim that environmentalists hate America is insulting and stupid. These people have worked hard for improving our American quality of life, including for extremists .