In the tiny California town of Briceburg, at the edge of Yosemite National Park, workers are installing a new solar microgrid from a startup called BoxPower. The local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, used to send power to the community through long distribution lines that traveled through remote areas—the same type of equipment that sparked disastrous wildfires such as the one that swept through the town of Paradise in 2018, killing at least 86 people. With the new grid, which generates power for the community locally, that dangerous long-distance infrastructure no longer needs to exist.
For PG&E, which was found responsible for starting more than 1,500 wildfires in recent years because of aging, mismanaged power lines that can create sparks in ultra-dry landscapes, this type of remote grid is one part of a larger plan to reduce future risk. The Forest Service and Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, are also taking steps to help the state avoid more catastrophic fires. But after multiple years of extreme fires, how likely is it that California will face another crisis—or series of crises—in 2021?
The state, along with several other Western states, faces a few fundamental challenges. Fires are natural in the ecosystem; decades of aggressively fighting those fires has meant that the amount of fuel keeps piling up, making the fires that get out of control far more intense. “We put out all fires immediately, and essentially completely removed natural fires from the landscape—the lower-to-medium intensity fires that would come through periodically and naturally thin the forest,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and research fellow at NCAR’s Capacity Center for Weather and Climate Extremes. At the same time, more people keep moving into the areas on the edges of wildlands where fires spread easily, meaning there’s a bigger risk of death and property damage. Underlying all of this is climate change.
“We have clear evidence that climate change is influencing wildfire risk in California,” says Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University. In the Western U.S. overall, he says, around half of the total area burned in the last four decades can be attributed to long-term warming. California doesn’t normally get rain in the summer anyway. But as the state gets hotter, vegetation is getting even drier. (In the winter, there’s also less snow now in the mountains because of warmer temperatures, and the snow that does fall melts faster, adding to the dryness.)
Wildfire season is getting longer and more intense; the rainy season used to start in October in Northern California, but now starts in November or December. In the past, strong, dry winds that naturally happen in the fall would often coincide with rain. Now those winds tend to gust exactly when plants and trees are driest and fires can spread most easily. Long droughts are also killing trees, creating more fuel to burn.
“I think the likelihood that California sees another severe fire season this year is high, unfortunately, because the drought is deepening,” says Swain. “This is now year two of what was already a significant drought in California. We’re now living in an era that is a lot warmer than it used to be. So even if we weren’t in a drought, we would expect that the likelihood of a bad wildfire season was elevated relative to what it would have been in the past.”
Of the 10 largest fires in the state’s recorded history, seven happened since 2017; five happened in 2020 alone, when more than 4.2 million acres burned, and even cities where there wasn’t a fire, such as San Francisco, experienced weeks of dangerously polluted air from the smoke. If the world works aggressively to fight climate change, it can help to keep the situation from getting substantially worse. But the reality is that climate change is already adding to fire risk, and places such as California that are particularly prone to fire will have to redouble efforts to prevent catastrophe.
PG&E, required by the state to create a wildfire mitigation plan, is installing dozens of remote grids such as the one in Briceburg and deploying more crews to inspect transmission lines and clear vegetation in other areas. (The latter step hasn’t worked perfectly, and state regulators are considering more oversight, saying that the utility didn’t correctly clear vegetation last year.) A new wildfire risk model, using tech from a company called Technosylva, predicts where fires may occur, helping the utility target the places to repair or strengthen the most vulnerable power lines. PG&E is also installing new cameras and weather stations to track conditions and detect new fires.
This year, as in recent years, Cal Fire plans to do controlled burns on tens of thousands of acres of land, helping clear out old vegetation so there’s less to burn if a new fire starts. It’s also thinning out trees in some areas. “If a fire is coming through and hits that area that’s been treated, there’s less fuel to burn there,” says Christine McMorrow of Cal Fire. “It’s going to change the fire behavior, and it’s going to change the fire intensity.” The agency also helps small-forest owners to do similar clearing. It advises homeowners to create “defensible space” and clear out trees around their houses to reduce the chance that the home will burn. (In addition, homebuilders can choose fire-resistant materials and make other design changes.) If worse comes to worst, the organization, along with other groups, uses a network of cameras that can catch fires early.
All of this can help, though it arguably needs to happen at a much larger scale. In 2020, as COVID-19 forced budget cuts, programs to help retrofit houses with fire-resistant materials and to reduce wildland fuel lost funding—at the same time that the state ended up spending well over $1 billion on emergency firefighting. Far less is spent on preventing fires than fighting them, even as climate change is reshaping the total threat.
“In the 21st century, an increase in wildfire in places like the American West and California is inevitable,” says Swain. “We are going to see more expensive and more severe fire years. The question is whether we see a continued increase in wildfire catastrophes that take lives and burn a lot of homes. That part is not inevitable. So I think we have to realize that more fire in the landscape is going to happen no matter what, but that we have a choice about what kind of fire that is, and the consequences that it has. And we really should be asking ourselves, how can we decouple wildfire from catastrophe? One does not necessarily lead from the other.”