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Wildfires Prompt Evacuations, Blackouts, State Of Emergency In California47:12
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U.S. officials on Oct. 26 ordered about 50,000 people to evacuate parts of the San Francisco Bay area in California as hot dry winds are forecast to fan raging wildfires. (Philip Pacheco/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. officials on Oct. 26 ordered about 50,000 people to evacuate parts of the San Francisco Bay area in California as hot dry winds are forecast to fan raging wildfires. (Philip Pacheco/AFP/Getty Images)

Fires have now torched more than 74,000 acres in Northern California. At least 180,000 residents have evacuated. Millions of residents plunged into darkness from mandatory power shutoffs.

We have the latest from the frontlines and look at disaster response at the brink.

Guests

Amy Harrington, mayor of Sonoma, California.

J.D. Morris, reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, covering power outages during the Kincade fire. (@thejdmorris)

Stephen Pyne, wildfire historian. Emeritus professor at Arizona State University, specializing in environmental history, the history of exploration, and especially the history of fire. Author of over 30 books, mostly on the history and management of wildland and rural fire, including "Fire: A Brief History" and "Fire in America."

Interview Highlights

How do people in Sonoma, California, feel that despite the power shutoffs, the fires are still burning? 

Amy Harrington: PG&E as a power provider is outrageous. And the current fire that's burning in Sonoma, you know, all evidence points that PG&E actually started that fire. It started at one of their geothermal power plants. And it looks like the fire started from a PG&E device. And then, 20 minutes later, they turned off the power in that area. So, what is happening now, requires state-level intervention. During all of this period, the last 20 years, they should have been undergrounding power lines, and updating infrastructure. And, instead, they were paying out guaranteed dividends to shareholders. So, having a shareholder-owned utility is clearly a complete failure. And it's going to require real leadership on behalf of the state, to figure out what to do about that. But, you know, this is a man-made problem, which is obviously exacerbated by climate change.”

"PG&E as a power provider is outrageous. And the current fire that's burning in Sonoma, you know, all evidence points that PG&E actually started that fire."

Amy Harrington

On the history of wildfires in California

Stephen Pyne: California is built to burn. And it's built to burn explosively. And almost everything people have done over the last 150 years has aggravated those conditions. And now climate change is acting as a performance enhancer — if you will — on top of that, and making it worse. And for a century or so, California has bridged the gap between the number of people who live there, and the fire conditions that exist there, with a really aggressive firefighting program. I mean, the five largest fire departments in the country are in California. No place on the planet has that kind of concentrated firepower. But three years of serial conflagration — I think it's pretty obvious that model has failed. And you have to think more deeply about changing the conditions. We simply can't respond fast enough, vigorously enough. And we never will be able, under these conditions.”

“California is built to burn. And it's built to burn explosively. And almost everything people have done over the last 150 years has aggravated those conditions."

Stephen Pyne

On the future of PG&E in California 

J.D. Morris: “You're seeing a lot of conversation here in California about whether there should be some form of government takeover of PG&E. The city of San Francisco has already offered PG&E $2.5 billion to buy its power lines. The mayor of San Jose, the Bay Area's largest city, is exploring whether PG&E should be transformed into a customer-owned cooperative. But the big problem, especially with what San Francisco is considering, is what does that do to the rest of the system? Because then you would have, kind of, the remaining PG&E would have the same amount of fire risk, but far fewer customers. So there are conversations about, you know, having some sort of municipalization, as they call it, or a government takeover. But we don't really know where it's going yet. And also, it's not going to change the fact that the system is in the condition that it's in. The wildfire risk that we're experiencing is what it is. And, so, regardless of who owns PG&E — of who controls it — there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make it more resilient for these really extreme climate change-driven conditions that we're experiencing here in California.”

"Regardless of who owns PG&E — of who controls it — there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make it more resilient for these really extreme climate change-driven conditions that we're experiencing here in California.”

J.D. Morris

From The Reading List

San Francisco Chronicle: "PG&E shares plunge as Kincade Fire destruction grows" — "PG&E Corp. stock fell as much as 27% on Monday as the unrelenting Kincade Fire continued to cast doubt over the company’s future and executives warned of more prolonged blackouts.

"Shares of the bankrupt company were trading at $4.19, down 16% Monday morning on Wall Street. They had been trading even lower, at $3.62, earlier Monday.

"PG&E’s stock slide comes as the Kincade Fire rages in northern Sonoma County, destroying nearly 100 buildings, threatening numerous others and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. The company reported last week that one of its high-voltage transmission lines malfunctioned at about the time and place the fire started."

Los Angeles Times: "California Wildfires Map" — "The most recent fire is the Getty fire, which started today.

"The largest active fire is the Kincade fire, which has burned 54,298 acres so far. It started on Oct. 23 and is 5% contained."

New York Times: "With Whipping Winds and Power Down, Californians Flee Fires" — "Erika Rivas could not sleep. The smell of smoke and the fear of encroaching flames kept pulling her back to that day two years ago when she realized her home in Santa Rosa was on fire. That night, she and her family fled their new house with no shoes or jackets.

"This weekend, amid overlapping crises of fire and blackouts, they have had to evacuate not once but twice.

"On Saturday, they moved from a rental home in Windsor into the house in Santa Rosa they are still rebuilding. Twelve hours later, at around 4 a.m., they again fled. 'It’s been like hell,' Ms. Rivas, 37, said. 'We had no water, no power, no anything.'

"Worry gave way to panic across a huge swath of Northern California, as officials ordered more people to leave because of the Kincade fire, bringing the number of residents under mandatory evacuation to 180,000. The evacuations came as the state’s largest utility cut power to as many as 2.7 million people, the largest intentional blackout in California history."

Vox: "California’s deliberate blackouts were outrageous and harmful. They’re going to happen again." — "What California went through earlier this month was absolutely bonkers.

"To avoid sparking wildfires during dry, windy weather conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the state’s largest utility, shut off electrical service to some 738,000 customer accounts, representing up to 2 million people. It was a planned, deliberate blackout unprecedented in the history of the nation’s electrical system.

"There’s probably no pleasant way to do something like that, but still, PG&E did it very poorly. Residents had little warning, in some cases less than 24 hours. Nursing homes, emergency rooms, police stations, and fire stations scrambled for backup generators. People with powered medical equipment or refrigerated drugs scrambled to find care at understaffed community centers, and 1,370 public schools lost power; 400 of them sent 135,000 students home to parents scrambling to cover jobs they had no way to get to."

CNN: "California governor declares statewide emergency as Kincade Fire grows to 50,000 acres" — "California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency on Sunday as wind-whipped wildfires in the north and south of the state gobbled up land, destroyed homes and forced almost 200,000 people to flee.

"In Northern California's wine country outside San Francisco, the Kincade Fire has grown to about 50,000 acres and is 10% contained, Newsom said Sunday. That's up from 30,000 acres reported earlier in the day. The governor estimated 180,000 people evacuated because of the fire, which CalFire says destroyed 79 structures.

"The Tick Fire, burning near Santa Clarita in the southern part of the state, destroyed at least 22 structures and threatened 10,000 more, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said Sunday.

"Meanwhile, Californians outside the fire zones find themselves in the dark — literally."

This program aired on October 29, 2019.

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