It’s 2030, and the risk of raging wildfires has intensified since the largest utility in California made history a decade earlier by triggering intentional blackouts for millions of residents. Higher temperatures bake the arid West, and warmer, drier winds threaten to turn sparks into roaring infernos.
In this potential future, envisioned by climate scientists and policy experts, utilities would still need to cut power when high winds race across tinder in northern forests and southern chaparral. Their liability could be higher than ever. To avoid major cash settlements or even bankruptcy, they might risk the wrath of politicians and customers to avoid sparking a catastrophic event.
The Golden State can travel down two potential paths over the next decade, experts said. In one, solar panels, battery storage and microgrids provide backup power in high-risk communities. That could alleviate the effects of power cuts.
In a darker scenario, affluent residents add solar and energy storage to their homes. Middle-class residents run diesel-powered generators that spew air pollution. And lower-income families go without electricity for multiple days a year.
"That’s the conversation we have to have," said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program. "Do we want to have kind of dystopian California, or do we want to have utopian Californian, clean California? And how much will either vision cost?"
Millions of Californians lost electricity in recent weeks when San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off power during what it called historic wind gusts. The utility defended its actions as a lifesaving step. CEO and President Bill Johnson said it would take a decade to fix its system to the point where blackouts would be rare.
PG&E and other utilities need to replace wooden poles and uninsulated power lines, and add cameras and artificial intelligence systems to monitor problems, experts said. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) will start using satellites next year to track wildfire activity. Locating fires with precision will help it "increase the safety of the electric infrastructure," SDG&E said. The utility’s weather station network is being rebuilt to provide temperature, humidity and wind readings every 30 seconds, instead of every 10 minutes.
But that falls short of the adaptation that’s needed, experts said.
The state, which prides itself on setting future trends, needs to overhaul policies in housing, wildlands, electricity delivery, insurance and more.
"The next 10 years are crucial for getting ahead of the fire issue," said Chris Field, director of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. "We really need to address almost every aspect."
Three factors have combined to ramp up risk of extreme fires, Field said. Many more people are living near wildlands, there’s an accumulation of dead and dying vegetation in forests, and climate change is ongoing.
It’s "clearly the crisis of the decade for the state," Field said. "It’s unimaginable how much the landscape has changed in the last few years."
Climate scientists draw links between global warming and a sharp increase in the number of extreme wildfires.
"If you look at the temperature when wildfires occur, it’s pretty correlated with their size and intensity," said Alex Hall, director of the Center for Climate Science at UCLA.
Columbia University research professor Park Williams and other scientists, in a study published in July in the journal Earth’s Future, said wildfires in California increased fivefold since the early 1970s. The state’s temperature over that time rose about 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Both Columbia and UCLA looked at changes in atmospheric moisture. Hall and his colleagues found a "strong correlation" between relative humidity — how much moisture is in the air compared with how much it could hold — and the amount of fire that spread. Winds have become drier primarily because of warming.
"When those winds are dry," Hall said, "that leads to larger fires and more intense fires." Some recent fires have coincided with humidity in "the low single digits," he said.
Hall’s research forecasts on average a doubling of burned area by 2050 compared with the last few decades of the 20th century.
That means residents shouldn’t expect utilities to stop shutting off their power.
In Northern California, where PG&E operates, it will take 10 years to make blackouts happen less frequently and affect fewer homes, Wara said. But some shut-offs will still occur.
There are creative solutions to deal with it. They include helping people in high-risk areas get electric vehicles. EV batteries are big enough that they could power a home for a few days, better than a generator, "and still have enough power to drive away if needed," Wara said.
A major challenge is that few EVs have the needed hardware. Their inverters are one-way and don’t allow for two-way power flow. The state could limit its EV incentives to manufacturers that agree to add the needed equipment, he said.
Rebuilding in fire zones
Other California-centric factors have indirectly contributed to its wildfire risk, experts said. Residents in some urban areas have opposed efforts to build apartments buildings, condos or other forms of multifamily development. That’s pushed more people into the wildland-urban interface (WUI), Wara said.
Proposition 13, passed in 1978, also plays a role. It caps property taxes at a percent of the sales price, with an inflationary amount added each year. That limits the ability of cities and counties to raise tax revenue. So many allow new development instead, even in high-risk areas. And because permitting is costly, developers are looking for large lots on which they can build more homes.
Throughout the United States, between roughly 2000 and 2010, about 75% of homes that burned in wildfires were located in the WUI, said Van Butsic, a land use specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. The rest was mostly in rural areas, with about 2% in cities.
People go back after they lose homes, Butsic said. He surveyed the 28 largest fires in California from about 1975 to 2005, and through aerial photos tracked what was rebuilt. About 90% of destroyed homes were rebuilt within a decade, he found. New homes also filled in large tracts of undeveloped land in formerly burned areas.
In terms of building safe, he said smaller houses with smaller yards are best for reducing wildfire risk. Big yards with foliage increase risk of flying embers igniting fires, he said. That could shift how California sees itself.
"The California Dream might have to change a little bit," Butsic said. "It’s not a three-bedroom house and a yard and a swimming pool, it’s living in a fire-safe community in an apartment and being able to walk to your job."
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in April told the Associated Press that he won’t support a ban on new housing in high-risk fire areas, saying, "There’s something that is truly Californian about the wilderness and the wild and pioneering spirit." His office didn’t respond to inquiries about his position.
Seven million or 8 million people already live in the WUI, Wara said.
Repeated wildfires raise the question of "whether there are some neighborhoods or communities that are simply in such high-risk areas they really need to be relocated for community safety," said Field with Stanford. "We need to take a serious look at that in California."
The issue of "managed retreat," or relocating people away from high-risk fire areas, is politically thorny, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University.
Stanford recently surveyed residents about preferred responses to wildfires. It found that "there’s not a lot of support for either subsidizing people to move or mandating people to move," Cain said.
The August survey found that a majority of respondents support restricting future development in high-risk areas and for the use of preventive burns by state and federal agencies. Residents didn’t support requiring people to buy insurance.
"What you get is a picture that the public doesn’t want to do anything really hard about this problem," Cain said. "They see it as a problem that certain communities have" and that "if they want to assume these risks, that’s on them."
The survey was done before the PG&E power shut-offs. Those hit areas with many affluent and politically powerful people, Cain said. That could help drive support for state actions over the next decade, he said, although right now the shut-offs mostly triggered anger.
Programs for managed retreat might prompt a similar reaction.
"It’s just a tough sell," said Butsic with UC Berkeley. "Everybody agrees it’s intuitive and is probably what’s needed, but no one wants to take the medicine."