Wildfire Home Safety: How to Sustainably Prepare for an Uncertain Future

Wildfire season is in full swing in the western region of the United States. In recent years although, the concept of just one “season” for fires has been replaced with year-round risk of fire on the West Coast. A warming climate manifests in heat waves, rising temperatures, drought, and an extended fire season in California, Oregon, and Washington. Increased risks alongside pandemic challenges have communities and homeowners facing increasing hardships, and important questions need answers. What are officials doing to help protect communities from heightened fire risk? What can homeowners do to take their safety into their own hands?

Wildfires are increasing in intensity, size, and causing more damage than ever over the last decade. Billions of dollars of property damage, and increasing losses of human life make these dangerous fires a huge impact on the communities they ravish. California has already broken its record this year, with over two million acres burned so far in 2020. In 2018, the state had its deadliest ever wildfire. The Camp Fire devastated the California Community of Paradise, killing 85 people. Evidence suggests that a major cause of this wildfire was downed high voltage electric utility lines owned and operated by PG&E, along with strong winds, high temperatures, and long lasting dry conditions.

The causes of recent wildfires are a highly contested, controversial, and political topic. Different groups clash in their views, most affirming these fires are caused by human induced climate change, while others claim it is poor forest management. Regardless of each fire's specific causes, one thing is clear: increasingly dangerous forest fires are the direct result of human beings.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, “Electric utility infrastructure has historically been responsible for less than ten percent of reported wildfires; however, fires attributed to power lines comprise roughly half of the most destructive fires in California history”. Organizations, including electric utility companies, are teaming up to do what they can to minimize the risk to residents, and hopefully prevent fires from happening. The CPUC states, “With the continuing threat of wildfire, utilities may proactively cut power to electrical lines that may fail in certain weather conditions to reduce the likelihood that their infrastructure could cause or contribute to a wildfire. This effort to reduce the risk of fires caused by electric infrastructure by temporarily turning off power to specific areas is called a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS)”.

Public Safety Power Shutoffs are the practice of private electric utilities during high risk weather events. In 2012, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) gave electric utilities the authority to shut off electric power in order to protect public safety, when strong winds, heat events, and related conditions are present. Most recently, on Monday September 7th, PG&E shut down electricity for about 172,000 customers in 22 Northern California counties, impacting at least 22,000 households and businesses in Napa and Sonoma counties, reported by KQED.

During a PSPS event, electric utility customers should expect to be without power for an extended period of time, around 48 hours on average. If a power shutoff affects a large number of customers, it can take multiple days for the utility to do safety checks and get the power turned back on. This extended loss of power can bring risk beyond the threat of fire to vulnerable individuals and communities. The most extreme hardships come to those who rely on power for medical needs. Power companies do recognize this issue. Their approach is proactive, focusing on identifying and educating vulnerable individuals, and making sure they have ample time to prepare before a PSPS.

However, a Public Safety Power Shutoff during a pandemic and widespread “stay at home” orders, leaves families cooped up inside without power. Aside from the public health issue of families staying indoors during extreme heat events, several other obstacles arise during a lockdown and PSPS double-whammy. Professionals who work remotely and rely on power and internet are unable to work and may lose wages. Children attending school remotely lose valuable learning time. Fully stocked refrigerators lose power and the food inside them spoils. The hardships are numerous and affect communities differently.

Balancing the risks and finding the best approach to handling pandemic woes, and public safety and health during fire season is harder than ever. An essential question comes to those in charge of choosing between protecting human life from fire danger, and widespread hardships and inconveniences to communities who lose power during a PSPS. To guide the approach moving forward, officials should study the recent history and effectiveness of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, and the constantly changing climate conditions.

Have Public Safety Power Shutoffs been effective in preventing wildfires? It is difficult to find a definitive answer, says the CPUC. KQED reports that the most persuasive evidence that de-energizing power lines may be effective in preventing catastrophic wildfires is seen from San Diego Gas and Electric’s response. The CPUC declares that ultimately, pre-emptive power shutdowns "can save lives" if coupled with tougher measures to keep trees and other vegetation away from electrical lines. PG&E also provides ample resources to homeowners to educate them on creating defensible space around their homes to protect them from fire damage, which can be found here.

One way for homeowners and renters of single family homes to take fire safety into their own hands is to manage and maintain the vegetation around their homes. Tips for creating defensible space around the home include leaving space between planted vegetation, creating fuel breaks like gravel walkways, trimming the height and volume of planted vegetation, and strategically landscaping with fire resistant plants. These changes can either be done by homeowners, or with the help of professional landscaping design teams.

To create a space around your home that is both beautiful, safe, and full of native and fire resistant species, seek the help of local green consultants and design-builders. Plant Group is an organization helping clients in Southern California, New York City, and around the world. Plant Group offers consulting, design and building services to create landscapes and green spaces, using xeriscaping and permaculture techniques, with a focus on native species and attracting pollinators. To see more of their work, and inquire about starting a project to transform the space around your home, visit https://www.plantgroupnyc.com/ , or email info@plantgroup.co.

To learn more about Plant Group and see how consulting, sustainable landscape design and building services can transform your space follow @plant_group on instagram.

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