Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

California is burning: How can it stay golden?

By Marissa Saretsky

fire crews fight a wildfire
Fire crews work on a wildfire in California. The 2019 fire season could be as destructive as earlier fire seasons. (U.S. Forest Service photo by Mike McMillan under Creative Commons 2.0)

A fire threatens a home in California

It has now been three years in a row that, from my vantage point in Berkeley, I have been affected by the California fires. And as the Kincade Fire rages near Healdsburg, I am in touch with many of my friends and neighbors in Berkeley, Oakland and Marin County, whose power has been pre-emptively shut off by PG&E, to see if they need a hot shower, a warm meal or some company to make it through the next few days.

A non-native Californian by way of Texas and France, I have begrudgingly adapted to the new reality that these fires present. I have been forced to seek cleaner air by purchasing air filters and masks at the depleted local Home Depot, evacuate entirely to the few nearby locations with sufficiently clean air (including Lake Tahoe and Paso Robles), and worry considerably about how the poor air quality would affect my young children’s development, both in utero and postpartum. It is frankly overwhelming, and the norm that this annual “fire season” has become leaves me deeply concerned about the future of this beautiful state, as well as its future generations that will increasingly face the nefarious effects of climate change.

This is no joke, and human rights are at stake. The California wildfires are already diminishing the ability of state residents to maintain an adequate standard of living, their right to work, and most significantly their right to life and security. Thousands of homes were destroyed and nearly 90 perished in the 2018 Paradise fire, and the Sonoma fires left many seasonal agricultural workers, particularly in the wine industry, without jobs.

Furthermore, the power shutdowns just earlier this month affected more than 800,000 customers and, according to CNBC, cost an estimated $2.5 billion in economic losses.

This is just the beginning, though. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reports that the wildfire season is getting longer in the western United States, having increased by up to two months in the past 100 years, and destroying more buildings and infrastructure than in the past. So, without trying to sound overly apocalyptic, all signs seem to be indicating that many of California’s poetic landscapes and epic beauty, along with the lives of those who have chosen it as their home, risk being devastated.

In its third year of managing major conflagration events, PG&E has decided that the best course of action is to shut off power for hundreds of thousands of residents to prevent sparks causing fire with current high winds. While these preventive measures are frustrating and disruptive to residents, there is reason to be supportive of these corporate gestures of risk mitigation. That being said, it is important to not confound last-minute risk mitigation or emergency responses with broader climate change resilience, and it is imperative that PG&E develop and integrate such measures into its strategy and budget. Key steps should include, for example, upgrading and strengthening the grid, as well as investing in energy storage and microgrids.

To be sure, with PG&E’s early 2019 bankruptcy filing, the company is hardly in control of its finances, and any major investments toward climate change resilience will be a difficult sell as it seeks to regain its financial footing. But the cost of inaction will be even higher when considering the physical damage, long-term financial consequences, and the often-irreparable cost to human lives and livelihoods.

It is hard to fully comprehend how California is both leading the nation on renewable energy solutions and legislation to support its proliferation, while at the same time fighting an uphill climate change battle with a crippled utility company whose most useful recourse is to turn off power.

But this is California in 2019, and as I sit here coordinating help for friends and colleagues without power, I am left wondering what the future holds for us residents of the Golden State. Whatever is golden may just in fact turn to dust, unless long-term climate resilience investments are made, starting now.

The post was originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.