The Spark that Made California Dark

Fire+moves+at+lightning+speed.+Woolsey+fire%2C+in+California%2C+engulfs+a+ridgetop+in+2018.+%E2%80%9CI+thought+I+was+going+to+die%E2%80%9D+says+Californian+Rebecca+Hackett+about+having+to+evacuate+during+the+fire.
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The Spark that Made California Dark

Fire moves at lightning speed. Woolsey fire, in California, engulfs a ridgetop in 2018. “I thought I was going to die” says Californian Rebecca Hackett about having to evacuate during the fire.

Fire moves at lightning speed. Woolsey fire, in California, engulfs a ridgetop in 2018. “I thought I was going to die” says Californian Rebecca Hackett about having to evacuate during the fire.

PETER BUNSCHMAN/FOREST SERVICE USDA

Fire moves at lightning speed. Woolsey fire, in California, engulfs a ridgetop in 2018. “I thought I was going to die” says Californian Rebecca Hackett about having to evacuate during the fire.

PETER BUNSCHMAN/FOREST SERVICE USDA

PETER BUNSCHMAN/FOREST SERVICE USDA

Fire moves at lightning speed. Woolsey fire, in California, engulfs a ridgetop in 2018. “I thought I was going to die” says Californian Rebecca Hackett about having to evacuate during the fire.

Sophia Dimitrakopoulos

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She looked into her rearview mirror.  She could not see anything but the charcoal and tangerine sky. The adrenaline was wearing off and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. The smell of smoke was inescapable.

Sarah Pearson could not hold back the tears she was on the verge of shedding. She had just lost everything. Her puppy, her home, and her community.

On October 23, the Kincade Fire had started 35 km away. Pacific, Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s main electricity provider, had failed to maintain a transmission line during the intense Santa Ana winds, sparking a massive wildfire.

A day later, the company cut the power off to over 2 million people, with the hope of preventing more fires.

The mismanagement and bankruptcy of PG&E over the last several decades has resulted in over a hundred deaths and thousands of homes lost. The perfect storm is now underway with suburbanization, climate change, and corporate greed resulting in massive and uncontrollable wildfires.

In the richest state, in the richest country, wealth knows no boundaries for urban development. This suburbanization puts the population at a much greater risk of loss due to wildfires.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the population of California has increased by 9 percent in the past decade and people building in more remote areas has increased by over 20 percent.

Volker Radeloff, a landscape ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the problem is, “likely to get worsen as people continue to build homes closer to natural areas”.

In addition, over the past century, California has warmed three times the global average. The newly hot air means that the vegetation and soil are drier than ever before, making it more likely to burn.

Although Californian forest ecosystems have evolved to burn naturally, the size and intensity of these fires have greatly increased with climate change. According to National Geographic, “the area burned across California during the summertime is about eight times higher today than it was only in the 1970s.”

Climate change is also affecting the Santa Ana winds resulting in warmer, drier, and stronger air flow. These winds are what disperse the fires at such a deadly rate. They are now spreading fire farther, wider, and faster than ever before. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection claims that, “climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.”

Last March, PG&E was found to be partially responsible for deadliest wildfire to date in California, Camp Fire. This was due to sparks from fallen transmission lines that were not properly maintained and not shut off during the threat of fire.

The company has a long history of mismanagement including diverting over $100 million from customers to corporate bonuses and profits, and not repairing equipment.

Their major role in the wildfires has led to multiple lawsuits and bankruptcy. As California Governor Gavin Newsom has said, “that greed has precipitated in a lack of intentionality and focus on hardening their grid, undergrounding their transmissions lines, they simply did not do their job.”

The perfect alignment of people building in burn zones, climate change and company greed is why innocent, hard-working people like Sarah lost everything. As CNN meteorologist Chad Meyers warned that, “one spark will take a fire a long way.”