California is on fire, again, and this time, we can’t blame Pacific Gas and Electric

Walbridge Fire (Fire 13-4)

FireShot Capture 268 - County of Sonoma Fire Incident Map - sonomacounty.maps.arcgis.com
Fig. 1. Screenshot of Sonoma County Fire Incident Map, taken by author on August 20, 2020, at 6:18 am EDT (3:18 am PDT).

The Walbridge Fire, formerly known as Fire 13-4, has visibly spread and a fire that had been reported along the coast between Jenner and Fort Ross now appears where it hadn’t before (figure 1). Evacuation warning areas now reach Occidental, which is a lovely little town in a lovely forested valley, and Forestville. I don’t yet have the full 72 hours of satellite photos that normally go into these gifs (figure 2) because the link had changed and I didn’t discover it until I went to check for this fire.
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Fig. 2. Western U.S. satellite imagery animation, as of 6:03 am EDT (3:03 am PDT).
You can see a wind flow around a high pressure area that was formerly a little farther west that looks like it should have been driving the fire in an opposite direction. The approaching cold front in the Pacific Northwest should also have drawn winds from south to north. This is belied both by the expansion of the fire itself and by the ash fall my mother reported. Also, to the extent the front had any impact at all, it will reverse as it passes.

The good news is that I haven’t received any further notifications for this fire since 4:23 pm EDT (1:23 pm PDT) yesterday, suggesting that the expansion of evacuation zones has stopped.

The bad news is that these fires are not being blamed on Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) but rather lightning, which is why there are so many of them, from 11,000 lightning strikes, around the state.[1]

In the short term, the sheer number of fires means firefighting resources are stretched thin, notably in part because prison labor is not available to help because of the COVID-19 pandemic.[2] In the longer term, it shows that California’s fire woes cannot solely be blamed on PG&E, which has been culpable in many fires, forced into bankruptcy as a result, and even criminally convicted in one fire,[3] although investigators cleared it in the 2017 Tubbs Fire which also afflicted Sonoma County.[4] California has suffered more drought than not my entire adult life, presumably due to the climate crisis; a single-minded focus on PG&E as culprit glosses over that the vegetation is tinder dry. The state needs rain, it isn’t getting it, and it can no longer be expected to get it.

Dale Kasler, Ryan Sabalow, and Sophia Bollag, “Can California handle this many wildfires at once? Crews and equipment already ‘depleted,’” Sacramento Bee, August 19, 2020, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article245083025.html


  1. [1]Dale Kasler, Ryan Sabalow, and Sophia Bollag, “Can California handle this many wildfires at once? Crews and equipment already ‘depleted,’” Sacramento Bee, August 19, 2020, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article245083025.html
  2. [2]Dale Kasler, Ryan Sabalow, and Sophia Bollag, “Can California handle this many wildfires at once? Crews and equipment already ‘depleted,’” Sacramento Bee, August 19, 2020, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article245083025.html
  3. [3]Howard Blume, “PG&E reaches $13.5-billion settlement with victims of devastating California wildfires,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-12-06/pge-settlement-fire-northern-california; Katherine Blunt, “PG&E to Plead Guilty to Involuntary Manslaughter Charges in Deadly California Wildfire,” Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-to-plead-guilty-to-involuntary-manslaughter-charges-in-deadly-california-wildfire-11584962649; Katherine Blunt, “PG&E’s Settlement With California Fire Victims Is Fraying,” Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-es-settlement-with-california-fire-victims-is-fraying-11586189889; Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold, “PG&E Knew for Years Its Lines Could Spark Wildfires, and Didn’t Fix Them,” Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-knew-for-years-its-lines-could-spark-wildfires-and-didnt-fix-them-11562768885; Katherine Blunt and Alejandro Lazo, “California Governor Threatens State Takeover of PG&E,” Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/california-governor-threatens-state-takeover-of-pg-e-11572641749; Peg Brickley, “PG&E Loses Challenge to Law Holding It Liable for Fire Damage,” Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-loses-challenge-to-law-holding-it-liable-for-fire-damage-11574910091; Russell Gold and Katherine Blunt, “PG&E Had Systemic Problems With Power Line Maintenance, California Probe Finds,” Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-had-systemic-problems-with-power-line-maintenance-california-probe-finds-11575338873; Richard Gonzales, “Federal Judge Imposes New Probation Terms On PG&E To Reduce Wildfire Risk,” National Public Radio, April 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/04/02/709248544/federal-judge-imposes-new-probation-terms-on-pg-e-to-reduce-wildfire-risk; Dale Kasler, “PG&E says its equipment may have caused a fourth California fire in the past week,” Sacramento Bee, October 30, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article236841498.html; Dale Kasler, “PG&E makes deal to pay California wildfire victims. What it means for utility’s future,” Sacramento Bee, December 6, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article238138009.html; Dale Kasler, “PG&E pleads guilty to manslaughter charges for Camp Fire, deadliest in California history,” Sacramento Bee, June 16, 2020, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article243571597.html; Dale Kasler, “California investigators blame PG&E for massive 2019 Kincade Fire in wine country,” Sacramento Bee, July 16, 2020, https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article244283752.html; KPIX, “Federal Judge Calls PG&E ‘Recalcitrant Criminal,’ Delays New Probation Ruling,” May 28, 2020, https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2020/05/28/regulators-approve-pge-bankruptcy-plan-despite-safety-fears/; J.D. Morris, “PG&E bankruptcy judge won’t approve attempt to halt fire victim votes,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/PG-E-bankruptcy-judge-won-t-approve-attempt-to-15185776.php; Ivan Penn and Peter Eavis, “Report Detailing PG&E’s Failures Raises New Hurdles for Utility,” New York Times, December 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/business/energy-environment/pge-camp-fire-report.html; Randi Rossman and Will Schmitt, “Broken PG&E tower discovered near origin of Kincade fire on The Geysers geothermal power property,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 25, 2019, https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10216601-181/kincade-fire-starts-inside-the; Joe Ryan and Mark Chediak, “PG&E stock craters after ruling Tubbs fire suit can proceed,” Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, August 19, 2019, https://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/9924652-181/pge-stock-craters-after-ruling; Joseph Serna and Taryn Luna, “PG&E power lines caused California’s deadliest fire, investigators conclude,” Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-paradise-camp-fire-cal-fire-20190515-story.html; Kanishka Singh, “PG&E failed to inspect transmission lines that caused deadly 2018 wilfdfire [sic]: state probe,” Reuters, December 3, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-wildfire-pg-e-us-idUSKBN1Y70N8; Reis Thebault, Kim Bellware, and Andrew Freedman, “High-voltage power line broke near origin of massive California fire that forced thousands of evacuations,” Washington Post, October 25, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/10/24/fast-moving-wildfire-ignites-northern-california-wine-country-prompting-evacuations/
  4. [4]Ivan Penn and Peter Eavis, “PG&E Is Cleared in Deadly Tubbs Fire of 2017,” New York Times, January 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/24/business/energy-environment/pge-tubbs-fire.html

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