Readings: Wildfires, Loot Boxes, Fruit flies, Lego, etc.

I got out of the car and stamped on the cigarette. “You don’t do that in the California hills,” I told her. “Not even out of season.”
—Philip Marlowe, in Raymond Chandler, “Playback” (1958)

Sometime over the next day or so more people in California are likely to have their electricity turned off than lost power during any US hurricane in 2019. Around 2m people — 800,000 customers — will lose power as utilities try to prevent their lines from sparking wildfires in the current Santa Ana event. 

And everyone knows who to blame—Pacific Gas & Electric! Climate change! Hedge funds!—and they’re mostly wrong.

First, however, some history. Wildfires in California predate human inhabitation. There is charcoal evidence in river beds of massive fires long before humans—aboriginal or otherwise—settled in the state. The state has what ecologists call a fire-adapted ecology, one that is not only prone to regular, massive fires, but even has many species of plants adapted for that event.

The typical timing of these fires is high winds and low humidity during what are called Santa Ana events1Many literary types know about the relationship between California fires and Santa Anas because of writer Joan Didion, whose essay mentioning them is an annual citation ritual. On point of un-clichéd pride, I will not mention Joan Didion again., usually in the fall, and the historical trigger was lightning. Millions of acres burned decadally that way in what eventually became California, mostly during Santa Anas. 

That, of course, changed once humans came to the state. While Santa Anas continued, fires no longer needed solely lightning triggers. The first native populations were active fire-setters, burning tens of thousands of acres every year to ready them for planting, transforming the California landscape through the power of fire. The earliest Spanish explorers noticed this, with some reporting as they sailed up the coast how this was the land of smoke, with a pall often covering the land. 

But newer triggers yet arrived when the state became settled by non-natives. Humans are profligate sources of ignition, from campfires, to gas-powered equipment, to pyromania, to, yes, power lines falling into dry landscapes. We have taken a state prone to massive fires and brought it what it didn’t need: Many news ways to be set on fire. At the same time, we have spread our ignition sources throughout the state. Where lightning was once limited to the mountains, and natives (largely) to the state’s coastal plains, humans are now everywhere in California, so wildfires can now start everywhere. 

You can see this pattern in the following figure, where California fire frequency soared with the state’s population. Note that this slowed in recent decades as settlement slowed, replaced by fewer, larger fires.

But let’s get back to causes. To give you some more historical context, here is a table of the largest California wildfires over the last hundred years—and their causes.

To summarize the causes:

    • Humans (accidentally or on purpose): 9
    • Lightning: 7
    • Powerlines:4

The takeaways are two-fold. First, most California fires aren’t caused by powerlines. Second, most fires are caused by humans—5 or 6 of the ten largest, depending on how you want to allocate things. Take away humans and you take away most of the ignition sources. You also take away most of the consequences too, as the following figure shows, where the number of California properties exposed to wildfire risk is larger than the rest of the country combined.

But California is inhabited, and that has consequences, like properties and powerlines. So, we need to answer a few questions here about why powerlines cause fires, whether that’s increasing, whether it’s negligence, and whether there is anything that can be done about it. 

Powerlines cause fires when they fall into dry landscapes, spark, and cause stuff to start burning. It’s that simple. Of course, they don’t fall into landscapes and start fires every day. It requires a bunch of pre-conditions, like low humidity, dry fuels, and (usually) winds. Without these elements, California fires either don’t start or stay small. 

Can this powerline-falls-into-dry-stuff problem be prevented? Is it somehow negligence? There isn’t anything that can be done about dry fuels, low humidity, or winds, so the question becomes, Can utilities prevent power lines from falling into landscapes during wind events?

Sure, bury them. Buried powerlines can’t fall into dry stuff and cause it to catch fire. But that is not a realistic solution. Pacific Gas & Electric alone has 134,000 miles of overhead power lines in the state, and burying them would cost something like $100-billion, according to one estimate. Burying even a fraction of the lines would still cost billions, leaving aside the environmental damage, or the unintended consequences of having power crews working in fire-prone landscapes to bury the lines, thus almost certainly starting fires in the pursuit of preventing fires.2Some have argued that paying homeowners to trim back brush would be a cheaper and better solution. While maintaining a “safe space” around homes in California is a good idea, and this could save some homes, it does not address the underlying trigger issue of what causes wildfires in the first place. Further, it ignores the “loot box” problem that I refer to and expand on below. 

Of course, that won’t stop many from making the “negligence” argument. Having made out nicely by turning PG&E into the bad guy for recent fires in the state—with their lines having causes fires and billions in property losses—some hedge funds have turned PG&E into a gaming-style loot box, something that with a modest investment of legal fees they can freely pillage for its cash contents. To, in effect, close the loot box, PG&E has now been forced to turn off a huge slice of California’s power when stronger Santa Anas blow. 3There is another solution, of course, but I’ve been reluctant to mention it. The California state legislature could inoculate utilities against negligence lawsuits brought by property owners if a fire starts after power is left on during a wildfire. I have issues with this solution, not least the unanticipated consequences of further privileging a regulated industry, but it would begin to address the loot box problem if the state simply said that utilities cannot be sued for leaving the power on during wildfire conditions. Residents cannot have this both ways.

So, are we simply screwed? The state is going to have fires, and this may be getting worse as a result of climate change, and utilities are going to cause some of these fires, and people always want someone else to blame. This isn’t a great combination.

We may not be screwed, but, as should now be obvious, blaming utilities is pointless. No-one wants to ask the right questions, like, why, in a tightly-coupled system,  wildfire-prone landscapes are inhabited, and why those properties don’t see insurance prices reflecting the real systemic risks created by their existence.

Houses in the California wildland-urban interface can be thought of as barbecue starters in a butane landscape—cheap sources of ignition with systemic consequences for the rest of the state as fires started there blow west during Santa Anas into more heavily populated areas.  Risk simply isn’t priced properly in California. Population growth in previously rural counties comes with consequences for the rest of the state, as historical data shows, and this ignition growth re-accelerated during the go-go, we”ll-fund-homes-built-anywhere years before the financial crisis. Entire landscapes were transformed by tract homes, most directly in the path of previous wildfires. All these thousands of homes, new and old, have powerlines, people, and lawn trimming appliances—ignition sources—virtually none of which are paying insurances prices commensurate with either their own risk, or with the systemic risk they create for others in the state. 

But meanwhile, rather than talking about the real issue, let’s go right on blaming utilities, or blaming climate change, or blaming anything but a grounded sense of what it means to live in a fire-prone landscape. That’s much more fun than talking about how mispriced risk, the housing bubble, and loot boxes embedded in a tightly-coupled system of urbanism and wildfires is a really, really bad idea, one that will only get more costly over time. 

<><><><><><><><><><>

Finally, here are some articles and papers worth reading:

Science & Technology

Life Sciences

Finance & Economics