After last year’s wildfire season, the deadliest in history, California is once again facing another tense season. Northern California has already had two red flag warnings, the most recent in late June.

The fires in 2018 were some of the most destructive in history. The Woolsey Fire burned over 96,000 acres, destroyed 1,143 buildings and killed three people. Even worse, the Camp Fire charred over 153,000 acres, burned 18,804 buildings and left 85 dead.

Although most of us associate high heat with these warnings, the three most important factors which create fire danger are:

  • Gusty winds
  • Low humidity
  • Dry fuel

Although in one sense this past winter’s heavy rains were good for the state, it ended up producing an excess of vegetation. Lush growth in winter and spring becomes dry fuel in summer. 

This season, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced that it may take extra measures once a red flag warning is declared. After consulting with CAL FIRE and other state agencies, PG&E may temporarily turn off power in counties where the risk is particularly acute.  

Since 2015, five of the last 10 most destructive wildfires have been linked to PG&E, either because live power lines blew down or because trees in areas maintained by PG&E fell onto live lines. The company filed for bankruptcy in January, due mainly to the cost of its liability for recent fires.  

PG&E says it will use the following criteria when deciding whether to temporarily shut down power:

  • Red flag warning declared
  • Low Humidity – 20 percent or less
  • Forecast of sustained winds above 25 mph and wind gusts exceeding 45 mph
  • Conditions of dry fuel on the ground
  • Real time observations by field and safety crews

The company plans to send out customer alerts via texts, emails and automated calls prior to any shutdowns.  It also put out a preparation checklist:

  • Update contact info with PG&E at pge.com/mywildfirealerts
  • Plan for medical needs that normally require refrigeration or power
  • Identify backups for charging phones and computers
  • Keep hard copies of emergency numbers
  • Restock emergency kits with flashlights, batteries, first aid supplies and cash 
  • Remember the special needs of children, the elderly and pets

As California’s emergency managers prepare once again for fire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom has told them to “prepare for the worst.”  It is up to all of us to be especially careful during red flag warnings. With a little luck, we may get through the year in good shape, but the increased intensity of fires due to the climate crisis is here to stay.  And sadly, so are the dangers of devastating fires.

by Peter Ornstein, 350 Bay Area Contributing Writer