The Bleeding Hearts Dry Up 5 - California Burning

Misgovernance, not climate change, caused California's fire problem.

So far in this series, we've explored a number of situations where activists' crusades have not only failed to achieve their stated goals, they've made the situation visibly and unarguably worse.  Not only do these activists pay no price for their misbegotten plans, they encourage politicians to double down on policies which are known not to produce the desired results - almost as if they don't even care about reality of results at all, only about gaining wealth and power for themselves.

Assigning Blame

One of the basic principles of engineering is that you can't fix a problem if you don't know what caused it.  That's OK with politicians and bureaucracies because solving problems denies them the opportunity to ask for more money next year.  Shifting blame gives them far more money and power, particularly if they can find some way to blame an unpopular group like rich businessmen, racists, or the patriarchy.

We described an example when a crane fell off a building in New York City.  The building department said it would take months to determine the cause of the accident, but they implemented new regulations immediately to make sure it didn't happen again.  Their first new rule was that a department inspector had to be present whenever a crane was moved, erected, or dismantled.

That's silly - if nobody knows what went wrong, what would the inspector watch for?  The cause of the crane crash eventually turned out to be a defective weld from when the crane was assembled in China.  Without X-ray vision, no inspector can prevent accidents due to bad welds, but the regulation stayed in effect to help build staff and budget at the department.

Because action was taken before blame was properly assigned, the rule change will accomplish nothing at vast expense.  As prices to pay for government stupidity go, though, this is petty cash.  California wishes its governmental problems were so small.

Real Causes of Conflagrations

One of the major reasons for the increasing severity of California fires is that the local climate is getting hotter and drier.  Warmer weather means that the prime fire season is 40-45 days longer than in the past.  The longer vegetation goes without rain, the drier it gets and the more vigorously it burns.

This is to be expected, however, because climate changes.  The Vikings ranched cattle in Greenland during the Medieval Warming Period and starved when the climate turned cold.  The name "Greenland" was not a marketing gimmick.  Climate became a lot cooler all on its own back then, long before anyone dreamed of petroleum-fueled motorcars or coal power plants.

A paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports:

Today, northwest Greenland hovers in the 30s and low 40s Fahrenheit and weathers snowstorms in summer. But average summer temperatures in the early Holocene (8,000 to 11,000 years ago) and Last Interglacial (116,000 to 130,000 years ago) climbed well into the 50s.

If Greenland was 10-20 degrees warmer in the past due entirely to natural processes, and the cooling since the Viking era has reversed to warm things back up, it would seem that California would be better off preparing for more warming than complaining about the heat.

Climate change aside, there are four well-documented man-made causes of more and bigger fires:

Poor forest management.  Before the US Forest Service arrived, forests in the American West were burned every 10-20 years by fires ignited by lightning or other natural causes.  This burned low-lying brush and cleared the ground for seeds released from their protective cones by the heat of the fire.  Some trees won't release seeds unless there's a fire to clear away underbrush to give the new seeds enough space.

By stopping any and all fires, the Smokeys let brush pile up so that when a fire got going, it would be a huge fire instead of a relatively minor matter which animals could outrun and from which trees would recover.  2018 wildfires produced about 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  That’s nine times the amount by which California cut emissions the previous year. They're going backward even by their own definition of what the objective ought to be.

Housing regulation.  California has such draconian zoning and planning regulations that buildable land is rare.  People have been building further from cities into the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI, which are forested areas where houses are at greater risk of burning. Buildings in the California WUI increased 20% from 1990 to 2010.

The California WUI is drier than most, however, so their fire risk increased more than other states experienced.  By law, PG&E must provide electric service in these areas, which increases the probability of their long-distance high-tension wires starting more fires as they run through drier areas.

PG&E is now being bankrupted by problems with power lines run through areas the law required them to serve.  If PG&E were truly an independent capitalist business that made business decisions based on business motives and the desire for profit, it would have either refused to provide service to dangerous locations, or (more likely) demanded that their own lines be buried safely underground and charged those customers accordingly.

Logging restrictions.  California activists have lobbied long and hard for rules which essentially prohibit logging.  The permitting process they've imposed makes it difficult for PG&E to cut trees which look like they're ready to fall across their wires.  Tree huggers want trees to mature, die, fall over, and rot back into the soil because it's more "natural" than being turned into usable timber.  We folks who actually live in the forest and know what trees look like outside of nature shows, use the word "kindling" to describe fallen tangles of dead trees.

This isn't a California-only issue.  The Australian Daily Telegraph shows that greens block controlled burns in Australia so that when fires get started, they're unstoppable.

No matter what legalistic and linguistic ploys are now used to rewrite history, green hostility to proper bushfire management is on the record, from the light-green NIMBYs who object to smoke, to green lobbyists who infiltrate government decision-making, taxpayer-funded green activists who embed themselves in government agencies, the bureaucratic green tape which makes the job of volunteer firefighters so difficult, the green NGOs who strongarm politicians, right up to the political arm of green ideology, The Greens.

Liability for fires.  The California Supreme Court ruled that PG&E is liable for any damage by any fire caused by its equipment whether it had been negligent or not.  Even though only about 10% of all fires are started by PG&E equipment, the cumulative liability of around $30 billion has forced PG&E into bankruptcy for the second time.  The ensuing uncertainties and confusion delay equipment repair, making fire-starting potential worse.

One of the main points of contention is the amount of fire-related liabilities.  Homeowners whose insurance companies refused to pay on the grounds that the fire was PG&E's fault say that PG&E owes close to $54 billion.

PG&E offered a settlement of $11 billion and some PG&E stock.  Many creditors want to accept, but others protest that it isn't enough.  Some insurance companies who wanted PG&E to pay their losses needed cash immediately and sold their claims against PG&E to hedge funds, sometimes for as little as 50 cents on the dollar.  The proposed $11 billion would give these funds several hundred million in profit and use up all the cash PG&E might otherwise spend on repairs.  The homeowners understandably want cash instead of PG&E stock of dubious value.

The fact that PG&E has also had to spend billions of dollars and scarce manpower connecting their network to distant "renewable sources" to meet California mandates hasn't helped their maintenance program.  Again, if you accept the theory that carbon dioxide is Bad for the Planet, and you believe in the science that measures the amount of CO2 released by the fires, and assuming you don't intend PG&E to use unpaid slaves to fix their equipment, you ought to want PG&E to have enough money to do whatever needs to be done to reduce fire risk.

You most especially should want them to be free to cut down any trees that present a fire hazard by growing too close to the wires.  But no, environmentalists and NIMBYs oppose any cutting by PG&E.  "'They cut down 25 trees to protect a single strand of wire,' Macy [a community resident] said."  A more truthful way of putting it would be, they cut down 25 trees to prevent 100 houses and the whole forest being burned down - but, of course, no reporter worth his Greenpeace membership card would ever say it that way.

Fake Causes Lead to Fake Cures

Whenever there's a major fire, California politicians start by blaming "climate change" - which is the voters' fault because they insist on driving polluting automobiles and are abandoning dangerous mass transit.  They then shift to criticizing greedy capitalists such as the mangers of PG&E.  Their anti-capitalist chorus increased in intensity when PG&E started cutting power to reduce their liabilities when high winds were predicted in dry areas.

This is the second time in living memory that California has suffered a wave of blackouts.  19 years ago, California suffered rolling blackouts when the state deregulated wholesale electricity prices without allowing utilities to pass higher costs on to their customers.  This forced utilities to buy high and sell low, a money-losing proposition.  Suppliers refused to sell electricity to California as PG&E got close to bankruptcy.

After dithering for 11 whole months while the lights flickered on and off, the state government finally figured out that all they had to do was guarantee that power wholesalers would be paid.  Voila!  Problem solved, and all it took was (somebody else's) money.

The number of residents who suffered blackouts over 11 months two decades ago was exceeded by just one of the blackouts PG&E recently imposed to protect itself from fire liability.  Various letters to the editor observe that PG&E is being totally rational in reducing its revenues by cutting power to reduce its fire risk.

Rather than make the obvious point about changing PG&E's perverse incentives, most of them simply want PG&E to also be held accountable for losses when they cut the power.  As if PG&E, already in bankruptcy court, were an inexhaustible source of money!  Money alone won't solve the problem this time - fixing wires, upgrading towers, and cutting back underbrush will take years of actual work.

Burying wires is no panacea either.  It costs two or three times as much as running overhead wires and takes longer.  What's worse, there is no known insulation that isn't beloved of burrowing critters.  Our friends who climb poles and fix wires assure us that no matter what insulation they try, something, be it a mole, weasel, squirrel, chipmunk, mouse, rat, or whatever, will gnaw on the insulation, electrocute itself, and shut off the power.  Breaks in overhead wires are pretty easy to find; a dead squirrel deep underground is a lot harder to locate and dig up before the wire can be fixed.

Another Activist "Solution" Known Not To Work

To any progressive, the obvious solution to any problem with services provided by any private company such as PG&E is for the government to nationalize the business, take it over, eliminate unjust profit, and operate it in the service of Power to the People.  Indeed, the Wall Street Journal tells us that the mayor of San Jose and other mayors and city managers representing nearly 1/3 of PG&E's service area want to turn the utility into a customer-owned cooperative.  The Public Utilities Commission, which must certify that any PG&E reorganization plan is in the public interest, will have to listen to them.

The city of Sacramento has its own electric utility. Its mayor said:

"I'm signing on in solidarity with my fellow mayors whose constituents are suffering under PG&E," said Mr. Steinberg, a Democrat who formerly led the state senate. He added that his city enjoys "the benefit of electricity being a public commodity and overseen by people who are accountable to the public."

It's true that PG&E has a considerable maintenance backlog - some of its high-tension electric towers are 108 years old - but because PG&E operates as a heavily-regulated entity, PG&E is anything but an example of how market-driven capitalism operates.  The mayor has a point that PG&E is not really accountable to the public -  it's accountable to the utilities commission, to top-level politicians, and to the diversity bureaucracy, certainly not to its customers - but one wonders how being government-owned would make any useful difference.

To be fair, nobody has figured out a good way to manage "natural monopolies."  It makes no sense to have more than one organization running electric wires, telephone wires, water, sewers, or gas pipes in any given geographic area.

Since the threat of competitors offering lower prices doesn't exist, the most common American method of keeping prices low is to create a "regulatory commission" to make sure that the utility doesn't gouge customers.  In practice, that boils down to keeping prices low no matter what - except when money is needed to support fashionable causes like locking land away from any sort of future use or hiring relatives of politicians.

The inevitable result of regulatory penny-pinching is deferred maintenance, equipment failure, and customer complaints.  In PG&E's case, this inevitable sequence is made worse by the fact that PG&E is liable for damage caused by fires ignited by its equipment.  Their delivery network doesn't support cutting power to smallish areas, so millions of Californians are re-learning the joys of second-world power outages as PG&E reduces its liabilities when high winds are predicted in dry areas.

So, we see that the efforts of environmentalists not only made life enormously worse for ordinary Californians, but harmed the planet by the same metrics trumpeted by environmentalists.  Why would anyone ever listen to such idiots again?

Yet it's the same politicians who are putting forward another "plan" that will only make things worse.  In the next article in this series, we'll examine the folly of having the various towns and cities in California take over PG&E's assets and try to operate them in a manner that is "accountable to the public," whatever that means.  We've had enough experience with cities taking over failing transit businesses to know how municipal or state ownership works out, every single time.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

I wish I had whatever it takes to employ the information above to some useful purpose. Instead, I simply battle a growing sense of depression. To date, the most successful means being the reading of an endless series of Louis L'Amour novels....I sleep better.
Another fine piece; much appreciated.62587

January 8, 2020 2:19 PM

Nothing fails like success. Being rich in any resource leads to squandering that resource until, broke, poverty returns and things become normal again. We are awaiting the bankruptcy of California which will be followed by the bailout and bankruptcy of the entity bailing them out.

January 8, 2020 5:49 PM

If as it appears, California voters will not allow its regulated utilities to earn a return on all its assets... municipals or co-op utilities are answers waiting in the wings. They will hardly be able to make magic happen, but will inevitably pay for the entire business.

This does look like Californians wanting to feast on the seed corn. At least the grown-ups have the option to vote with their feet.

January 8, 2020 9:42 PM

Scat Fransisco has all of California's problems writ small. People are asking whether the city can be saved:

NIMBYs and YIMBYs hate each other; both groups [are] vehemently opposed to the others’ point of view. As rent prices skyrocket, it is more difficult than ever to build new units to catch up to the backlog of demand as more people flood into the Bay Area for IT jobs. Big tech companies like Facebook and Google compete dearly for talent without putting the same level of effort into engaging with the surrounding communities. (Only recently have executives at these companies started to make more serious inroads to change this.)

And the mess of red tape it takes to open a small business in a neighborhood has made it prohibitively difficult for would-be entrepreneurs to offer more local services to neighborhoods. I live in the Castro, where it sometimes feels like more vacant shops line Market Street than occupied storefronts. It doesn’t help that neighborhood associations fight against new occupants regularly, opting for an empty storefront [rather] than a filled one. Add to that the landlords sitting on exorbitant asking prices for retail rentals, and we wonder why Main Street is being quickly replaced by Amazon.


Fixing something in San Francisco is like applying a Band-Aid to a gushing wound. There’s a lot to love about the city, but it’s clear that entire systems need to be overhauled and dismantled for real change in areas such as mental health, pedestrian safety, housing, [and] inequality. I have to believe that change is possible, but it will require a lot of imagination, innovation, people power, and political will to make our city better. All the more reason why civic and political participation of all people, especially those from marginalized communities, is so important. We know the issues best and we have the solutions.

January 9, 2020 3:22 PM

I'm surprised you have quoted Miranda Devine to press forward your case, namely:

"This isn't a California-only issue. The Australian Daily Telegraph shows that greens block controlled burns in Australia so that when fires get started, they're unstoppable.

No matter what legalistic and linguistic ploys are now used to rewrite history, green hostility to proper bushfire management is on the record, from the light-green NIMBYs who object to smoke, to green lobbyists who infiltrate government decision-making, taxpayer-funded green activists who embed themselves in government agencies, the bureaucratic green tape which makes the job of volunteer firefighters so difficult, the green NGOs who strongarm politicians, right up to the political arm of green ideology, The Greens."

You quote an article written in 2013 by Devine who is known to be a conservative reporter. There may be some truth in what she wrote, but one must take into account her bias. Famously:

In 2011, Devine used the news of Australian federal government minister Penny Wong's decision to parent a child with her female partner as the basis of a column in which she argued that the 2011 riots in England were the result of a "fatherless society".

In 2015, Devine sparked considerable controversy after claiming that "women abusing welfare" were the main cause of domestic violence.

In 2017, she wrote that share bicycle schemes were a terror threat.

In 2018, Devine advocated for the continuation of coal-fired electricity options; she has repeatedly suggested that climate change is a political conspiracy.

She writes for a Murdoch owned paper whose myrmidons do his bidding.

January 17, 2020 4:38 AM

California's electric and fire problems are a predictable result of passing laws that go beyond avaiable technology - the problems with not letting fires burn have been obvious for at least 50 years, and the fact that their winds generally die down at night as the sun goes down and A/C loads stay high has also been known.

This article has an interesting time line of various laws which were passed to increase the amount of electricy that had to be created from renewables and restrict logging.

This article goes into detail about how badly California mismanaged their forests.

Their situation got so bad that the had to ask the EPA for permission to relax all pollution regulations so they could generate electric power by whatever means:

So much for greenery!

September 7, 2020 7:33 PM

Articles about the fire disaster are becoming more common, but they don't seem to go deeply into root causes.

New wildfires ravaged bone-dry California during a scorching Labor Day weekend that saw a dramatic airlift of more than 200 people trapped by flames and ended with the state’s largest utility turning off power to 172,000 customers to try to prevent its power lines and other equipment from sparking more fires.

California is heading into what traditionally is the teeth of the wildfire season, and already it has set a record with 2 million acres burned this year. The previous record was set just two years ago and included the deadliest wildfire in state history — the Camp Fire that swept through the community of Paradise and killed 85 people.

September 8, 2020 11:37 AM

CNN tells us: Hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in Oregon, California and Washington, and weather conditions are no help

It's not just California! As one would expect, NO mention of bad forest management.

Oregon has experienced "historic wildfires" almost every year in Brown's time in office, but this year's fires are "unprecedented," she said.
"This is definitely a once-in-a-generation event," Brown said.

In Washington state, more acres were burned Monday than were charred in the past 12 fire seasons, Gov. Jay Inslee said, and dry conditions continue to fuel the blazes. In one eastern Washington town, flames destroyed more than 80% of homes and public infrastructure.
"I just can't reiterate," the governor said, "we think almost all of these fires were human-caused, in some dimension. If you can avoid being outside for anything that would even cause a spark, I hope people can avoid those conditions."
"This is a new reality we're living in with a changing climate," he added.

September 9, 2020 11:26 AM

MIT steps into the controversy, and they DO blame bad forest management:

There’s an overwhelming to-do list. But one of the clearest conclusions, as experts have been saying for years, is that California must begin to work with fires, not just fight them. That means reversing a century of US fire suppression policies and relying far more on deliberate, prescribed burns to clear out the vegetation that builds up into giant piles of fuel.

Such practices “don’t prevent wildfires,” says Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor at the University of California, Merced focused on fire and land management. “But it breaks up the landscape, so that when wildfires do occur, they’re much less severe, they’re much smaller, and when they occur around communities, they’re much easier to control.”

Awaiting a spark

The Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres across Idaho, Montana, and surrounding areas, killed nearly 90 people, destroyed several towns, and famously ushered in an era of zero tolerance for fires in the US. It and severe fires that followed prompted the US Forest Service to officially implement the “10 a.m. policy” in 1935, with a goal of containing any fire by that time the morning after it was spotted.

Decades of rushing to stamp out flames that naturally clear out small trees and undergrowth have had disastrous unintended consequences. This approach means that when fires do occur, there’s often far more fuel to burn, and it acts as a ladder, allowing the flames to climb into the crowns and take down otherwise resistant mature trees.


The problem now is the staggering scale of the work to clean this up.

As much as 20 million acres of federal, state, or private land across California needs “fuel reduction treatment to reduce the risk of wildfire,” according to earlier assessments by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other state agencies. That’s nearly two-thirds of the state’s 33 million acres of forests and trees, and six times the area that has burned so far this year.

This “treatment” can include prescribed burns set under controlled conditions—ideally, spaced out geographically and across the year to prevent overwhelming communities with smoke. It can also mean using saws and machines to cut and thin the forests. Another option is “managed wildfire,” which means monitoring fires but allowing them to burn when they don’t directly endanger people or property.

More than a century of deferred work, however, means it’s hard to get into places that need thinning. It’s also risky to do prescribed burns or allow natural fires to rage, since the fuels are so built up in many places, Westerling says.

A 2018 report by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, recommended cleaning out 1.1 million acres a year. That would still take two decades, and require a lot of workers and money. Prescribed burns on forest and park lands can cost more than $200 per acre, while thinning can easily top $1,000, depending on the terrain. So the total costs could range from hundreds of millions of dollars to well above a billion per year.

Still, that’s a fraction of the costs incurred by out-of-control wildfires. To take just one example, the devastating Wine Country Fires in October 2017 did more than $9 billion worth of damage in a single month. Battling wildfires on US Forest Service land runs more $800 an acre.

And without thinning and burning, the wildfires are only going to get worse.

October 22, 2020 6:27 PM
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