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'Harbinger of what's to come' seen in Calif. wildfires, response

SNL Image

A fire linked to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. infrastructure rages through Paradise, Calif., in November 2018.

Source: Associated Press

Following some of the deadliest, most destructive wildfires in California's history in 2017 and 2018, the Golden State must now arise from the ashes and adapt to the clearly heightened threat of mega-infernos sparked by climate change and utility infrastructure, top California energy and fire officials said.

"For many years, I thought that the central task was reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the electric system, and then using clean electric fuels to go tackle other industries," California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told a packed auditorium at the opening session of the state's first Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit. "What I am learning over the last couple of years is we are far more advanced into climate adaptation then I had ever thought. It's here."

To break through this "different kind of climate denial," Picker called for more collaboration among emergency services, energy regulators, technology and communications companies, and utilities.

"It's a team sport," said Thom Porter, the state's fire chief and director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Like it or not, climate change has changed the game for us."

As required by legislation passed in 2018, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the CPUC are working closer on protocols for fire prevention and safety strategies, including managing power lines and other utility equipment. The increased collaboration among California's top energy and fire officials, which Gov. Gavin Newsom's Office of Emergency Services is facilitating, comes amid consideration of California utilities' proposed wildfire mitigation plans.

The CPUC aims to approve those proposals in May. They include expanded use of strategic power shutoffs and deploying data analytics, machine-learning and other technologies. The strategies are taking shape alongside Newsom's planned release by April of a "comprehensive strategy" on the crisis surrounding the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The company entered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January with its corporate parent, PG&E Corp., related to billions of dollars of wildfire liabilities from blazes linked to its equipment.

"I think California is way ahead on this because they've obviously got some serious problems," said Ed Struzik, a noted author on wildfires and fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. "California is the harbinger of what's to come for the rest of the world."

But it may not be pretty, given projected increases in wildfire activity across western North America, he added. "We are going to see changes in forest structure. Water quality may be degraded. Utilities are going to continue to be threatened. Fish populations are going to suffer," Struzik said. "Business as usual is not going to be successful."

'Wildfire season is going to be expanding'

David Pierce, a climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, expects California's wildfires to grow considerably in coming decades, adding urgency to the state's efforts.

Citing research conducted as part of California's Fourth Climate Change Assessment, a series of reports published in 2018, Pierce highlighted important "nuances" to the overall warming trend expected in the 21st century that could impact wildfire and power system planning.

For instance, while research indicates the interior will heat up more than the coast in general, the increased intensity of heat waves will be worse on the coasts. "That's going to have a lot of impact on energy use and health" because coastal areas may see more demand for air conditioning in response to higher temperatures, the climate scientist said.

At the same time, changes in precipitation appear likely to result in modestly wetter annual conditions but still worsen the risk of wildfire as shorter, wetter winters become surrounded by drier, hotter springs and falls. "So what's happening is the wildfire season is going to be expanding out," Pierce said.

While managing forests better can help reduce wildfires, such as through thinning, "you still have a problem even with treatment," he added.

Such forecasts make Picker contemplate retirement, he admitted, adding, however, that the event's strong turnout, in addition to efforts by energy and emergency agencies, gives him "some hope that smart people will actually turn and focus on these issues and we'll make progress."