Power Lines Are Burning the West

Human technology is responsible for more loss from fire than any other cause. But reducing fire’s impact will require changes to how people live, not just to the infrastructure that lets them do so.

A pole supporting electric wires goes up in flames in a wildfire.
The Cocos Fire burns in San Marcos, California, in 2014. (Mike Blake / Reuters)

In October 2017, 250 square miles burned in Northern California, destroying 6,000 homes and businesses and killing 44 people. For now, the cause of these fires has not been determined. The private utility company Pacific Gas and Electric, known to Californians as PG&E, is under investigation. Total damage for the Northern California wildfires comes to $9 billion. PG&E has started stockpiling cash.

In California, this is a familiar story. Three years ago, in February of 2015, one-third of the houses in my remote neighborhood in Eastern California burned down. Here, before the fire, 100 houses lay scattered across the leeward flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The people who live here spend their time walking steep roads, listening to crickets, chasing mule deer out of the garden, and looking over a desert valley below. Days after the fire, my neighbor, Cassie, wasn’t doing any of these things. Instead, she stood inside her smoking foundation. Tall and easygoing with freckles on her nose, Cassie had come home from college that winter to sift rubble with her mom and dad. Under different circumstances, we might have hiked together or skated frozen ponds. I used to carpool with her family to school, and I remember her house, wooden and gorgeous and overlooking a ravine from which flames later rose.

We wore rubber gloves to sort the rubble, but there was not much rubble to sort. The air smelled of sulfur, and mostly only dust lingered, as if a great storm had picked up the walls and roof and furniture and lifted everything away.

Like the 2017 fires in Northern California, the cause of the fire that burned our neighborhood, according to the government database, is still under investigation. One source is more likely than others: On that day, strong winds whipped power lines that hung over dry brush.

A power line can start a fire if it breaks in the wind. It can start a fire when a tree or a branch falls across it, or when lines slap together, or when equipment gets old and fails without anyone noticing. In 2015, fires started by electrical lines and equipment burned more acres in California than any other cause. Power lines sparked fires that set records in New Mexico and fed a blaze in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that entered the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and killed 14 people in 2016. In recent years, they have consistently been among the three major causes of California wildfires.

Hurricane-force winds periodically shriek off the Pacific and rattle California. Wind strong enough to break a power line spreads fire fast. This past October, when I sniffed the air and found that California was once again burning, I looked around and saw many wires thatching an orange sky. I was visiting my aunt in Northern California, 50 miles from the fires. We sat inside and watched the noon sun dim.

My childhood home didn’t burn the year Cassie’s did. But it should have. Dry leaves lay in piles beside the wooden walls. The volunteer fire captain’s house across the street burned, although he maintained plenty of defensible space. And so I wait, even now, for the next windstorm.

In the months after my neighborhood burned, I waited fearfully, which means I waited angrily. In particular, I hoped power companies would put their lines underground. In 1995, fire-related costs ate up 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget. By 2015, half of the budget was devoted to fire. Some of us wondered how safe our power can be when utility-company profits drive power operations. PG&E has been found guilty of negligence before in wildfires, and some of us point at negligence and greed again this time.

There’s a precedent for fire occurring alongside an infrastructure that drives economic growth. From 1870 until the 1920s, most major fires in America were caused by locomotives. We fixed that problem, says Stephen Pyne, a firefighter-turned-historian. “New laws were enforced, fines and lawsuits applied economic pressure, engines were compelled to replace coal with oil as fuel, suitable spark arrestors were invented, rights-of-way were cleaned of debris, lines were patrolled.” And so locomotives started wildfires for decades, but not forever.

Like railroads, power lines deliver a seemingly limitless supply of a product wherever people want it. On a good day, the grid makes life easy. Far from urban centers, in my house up the side of a mountain, in an ocean of dry brush, the lights still flick on.

In general, power lines only cause fire when things go wrong above ground. Even utility companies agree, after a 2012 study by the Edison Electric Institute revealed that underground lines had fewer problems during storms and were better for public safety all around. But California has 210,000 miles of electrical lines. The cost to put lines underground is about $1 million per mile to start, and much more in mountainous areas. That’s five to 10 times what it costs to hang a line overhead, which usually makes underground lines logistically or economically impractical. In North Carolina, for example, a plan to put power lines underground was dropped because utility rates in the impacted area would have risen by 125 percent.

And despite the impulse to blame industry, the power companies aren’t entirely in control of the solution. California utility companies don’t get to decide how much line they install underground; that matter is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, in order to “protect consumers,” “safeguard the environment,” and “assure Californians’ access to safe and reliable utility infrastructure,” according to the organization’s stated mission. The commission balances risk with cost and limits how much utility companies can spend by putting wires underground. Other improvements to the grid are being investigated, including better line insulation and technology that could anticipate line failure and shut off power in advance. But all of these solutions will be slow and costly to implement. I might get angry with utility companies, but I like to turn lights on in the dark.

In the United States, fossil fuels burned to make electricity and heat put more greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere than any industry. My neighbors’ houses burned amid the worst drought California had seen in a millennium. In recent decades, wildfires in the American West have begun to range farther and burn longer. Scientists from eight universities got together in 2016 and looked at tendencies in wildfire and the ways we manage wildfire. They concluded that “wildfires across western North America have increased in number and size over the past three decades, and this trend will continue in response to further warming.” They called this a “new era.”

Fires burn bigger areas and destroy three times as many houses as they used to. What was once a problem in June, July, and August now extends through November and beyond. I evacuated for avalanche warnings in the winters of my childhood. In February 2015, I wandered my neighborhood and gaped at new patches of sky, as smoke seeped out of the ground.

When a fire comes up the side of the mountain and destroys our homes, we say: natural disaster. When lightning starts that fire, we say: natural disaster. When power lines start that fire, we still say: natural disaster. Deliberate debris burning, fireworks, and rogue campfires are among the most common causes of so-called wildfire in some parts of California. Still, when people consider wildfire—even wildfire caused by human tools—it seems to us as inescapable as lightning.

Three years after her house burned down, I asked my childhood neighbor Cassie whether she felt the fire that destroyed her house was inevitable. She lives in San Francisco now, where she prepares environmental impact reports for federal and state agencies. Her parents live in a house rebuilt atop the ashes of the old. “The smell of smoke made me nauseous,” Cassie told me, while Napa and Sonoma burned last fall. “I woke up in the middle of the night because I could smell it. It felt so close.”

Cassie did not consider the loss of her home unavoidable. When people treat fire as an inevitability, she said, its consequences become divorced from human behavior. What she saw on the local news after the Northern California fires were the stories of “people and families and homes,” over and over. It makes sense, because people’s lives are changed, she said. “But that’s always the focus, instead of the bigger issue ... instead of, this could have been prevented, and there’s a reason that it happened, and it’s connected to our infrastructure. But I just don’t think it’s something people want to talk about.” It sickened her, to feel fire’s heat, to smell its smoke, without facing its implications.

And those implications are complicated. “Many of the problems of fire management do not have technical fixes,” Pyne, the fire historian, wrote during the Northern California fires. “They depend on social choices hammered out in politics—appropriate land use, the purpose of public lands, competing economic interests, cultural values, and philosophies.”

It’s possible to update technology to dodge disaster, to a point. We can make advance warning systems for earthquakes, cloak first responders in NASA-developed fire suits, and mitigate rising sea levels with permeable pavement and rain gardens. We can also update technology to avoid having to change the assumptions that cause some of the problems in the first place. When locomotives burned forests, people changed the mechanics of trains—they didn’t reevaluate the long-term viability of rail. The need to move thousands of tons of lumber and coal and food and passengers at high speeds through forest and prairie and desert did not come into question. It’s easier to find a quick fix than it is to change culture.

Some biologists contend that our brains did not evolve to conceive of the long-term consequences of our choices; that we are not primed to master deep time but to put out small fires⁠, if you will. Yet it appears we have also evolved to comprehend the far future, if only in flashes. We operate, Pyne writes, “not according to strict evolutionary selection but in the realm of culture, which is to say, of choice and confusion.”

The night our neighborhood went up in smoke, I was 2,000 miles away. I sat on the floor and held a phone to my ear while my father described our mountain, burning. I gathered the things I had taken from my childhood bedroom around me like talismans and I imagined the world in flames.

My house survived the fire because the volunteer fire captain, who drove up his street in a fire truck and saw his own house burning, had the presence of mind to keep moving, to keep working to save what remained. He or another volunteer doused the flames that devoured a pile of railroad ties in our yard, flames that could have laddered up our brush hill and laced fingers through the railings of the porch.

Eventually, the scientists say, wildfires in the western United States might dwindle. This could happen when precipitation withers to the point that vegetation doesn’t come back. The fires will end when there is nothing more to burn. Cassie and I would like to choose a world in which there is a lot left to lose—we would prefer to protect our mountain homes, not to mention our larger communities and the global climate, and direct our lives in ways that will save what we love. Others would, too. Last October somebody put up signs in Sonoma that said, “The Love in the Air Is Thicker Than the Smoke.”

For those of us living in the path of wildfire, we have come to understand that we must live with it, that no quick solution awaits us, that changing the ways we think and being open to new ways of living might protect our communities. Pyne writes that fire as we know it is “largely the outcome of what this creature has done, and not done.” Humans have changed fire, and fire will change us, one way or another. We can try to choose the way. Maybe this means smarter technology, already in the works. Maybe it means making new relationships with fire, making fire a tool, listening to the people who understand fire when it’s time to rebuild and then rebuilding in different ways, or even in different places.

The scientists say we can choose to accept wildfire as “as an inevitable catalyst of change,” and we can adapt. Here, in a nation that currently suppresses 95 percent of all wildfires, at great cost and with questionable efficacy, it might be best to focus more on guiding the way fire burns. Communities can put more resources into controlled burns—more than 99 percent of which stay within selected boundaries—and teach the public about their benefit. Local governments can help educate and support landowners in fuel removal and property protection. And both residents and developers can think carefully before they build farther into wilderness, which is, after all, fire’s country.

And yet it’s hard to work to change more than the technology—to change ourselves in order to accommodate and support these adaptations. It’s easy instead to slip back into life as we know it, to forget what a new era may ask of us, even when the stakes are very high. “Despite the fact that I feel very passionately about a lot of these issues, and they impact me personally, I don’t think about it day to day,” Cassie said. “At all. Ever.” And neither do I. This is life, the slow build of the wind on the Pacific, the heave of power over our heads.