Stressed Californians cope with a future of fires and power outages

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It is sad, agrees real estate broker Scott Fuller, who founded a website in July 2018 called LeavingTheBayArea.com, that a state called “golden” has lost its luster for so many.

“I can say for myself that I never thought of leaving California,” adds Fuller, a Californian since 1984.  “…A lot of the people that we talk to and that we work with say the same thing, that they never had any intention to move.”  

Some leave voluntarily, but factors that are out of their control force others to search for greener pastures.

“It’s hard to argue that there’s anywhere else that has better weather, more activity, more to do and has a better proximity to just about everything,” Fuller says. “I think a lot of people have come to grips with this recently and it isn’t something that they were planning.”  

It’s the proverbial water cooler Topic A—whether California’s chronic problems, magnified in the high-priced Bay Area, have reached a tipping point. Start the list of seeming “intractables” with housing prices, congestion and homelessness. Add to that the fact that the top state income tax rate (13.3 percent) is the highest in the nation; the 2017 federal income tax law upped the ante by capping deductions for state, local and property taxes at $10,000.  

Sales taxes on the Peninsula have inched up and are approaching the 10.25 percent levels hit by about a dozen Los Angeles-area cities.  When 2013 began, the rate in Atherton, Belmont, Menlo Park, Redwood City and San Carlos was 8.5 percent. It’s now 9.75 percent in Belmont and Redwood City and 9.25 percent in the other three. That’s still below the state champ – Santa Fe Springs at 10.5 percent, passed November 2018 – but new proposals are being discussed for Bay Area transportation taxes. 

Californians live in anticipation of “the Big One” but the catastrophic wildfires of the past few years set off a different shock to the system. October’s widespread Public Safety Power Shutoffs – even in urban areas – may have, as PG&E Corp. contends, prevented more fires from starting. But the prediction by company President and CEO William Johnson that planned shutoffs may be a fact of life for a decade, until improvements to the grid can be completed, give rise to an unfamiliar uneasiness about living in the Golden State, especially in rural areas: If similar fire seasons and outages are the new normal, are California residents, government and services everyone depends on prepared to deal with it? 

“So does this whole scenario make California unlivable?” responds Rich Gordon with a laugh. President and CEO of the California Forestry Association, Gordon served 13 years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and then in the State Assembly before taking his current job two years ago. “I think the history of California is that we’re folks who figure out how to adapt and keep going.”  

If forced power shutoffs continue to occur, the Menlo Park resident is confident that people will take steps such as creating community centers for emergencies.  To residents who didn’t realize they live in a high-risk fire zone, the recent experience is a “wake up call … to not only figure out how to deal with that problem but also figure out how to protect your home and provide the defensible space that you should around your home.”  

Volatility and innovation have always been a way of life in California, agrees State Assembly Speaker Pro tem Kevin Mullin, which makes for big challenges for public policymakers.  

“I will always be a believer in the California dream and our ability to respond to the challenges, but look, I’m the first to tell you that we’ve got serious work to do to make the state more livable and to deal with the affordability crisis,” he adds. “It’s real and we have to do more on affordable housing and making the state more livable and investing in transportation infrastructure …There is a long history of people writing California’s obituary, and they’ve always been proven wrong. So I will remain an optimist about our ability to respond to the many challenges we have in front of us.” 

Is California ’emptying out?’

There’s plenty of polling, anecdotal evidence, and stories like this one indicating that people are more anxious about remaining in the state that attracted its first population boom 170 years ago, on a dream that immigrants could sift a fortune right out of a river. Forty-seven percent of those polled by Edelman Intelligence in January 2018 said they were considering moving out of the state in the next five years, and the rate was higher among millennials (55 percent).  

A February 2018 report by the California Legislative Analyst drawn from federal American Community Survey data showed that between 2007 and 2016, on net, the state lost one million residents to other states, or about 2.5 percent of its population. But out-migration between 1990 and 2006 was “on average, more than double what it was in the most recent ten years.” Although more people in most demographic groups left California than moved in from 2007 to 2016, not surprisingly, the state “has gained among those with higher incomes ($110,000 per year or more) and higher levels of education (graduate degrees).”  

For definitive answers, people will have to wait until the 2020 Census figures become available in April 2021, but they’ll continue to have their opinions about whether the state is emptying out – and whether to join the exodus. 

“Everybody says they are leaving the state, but they’re not talking about the people who are coming in,” says Realtor Cliff Keith, a 44-year veteran of the business. “… We’re still selling houses. Houses are selling within three weeks.” The average sale price in Redwood City, he noted last month, was $1,809,000, and the last time one was listed for less than $1 million was Oct. 25. “It was one,” he adds.   

Emerald Hills resident Henrie Conway, 78, and her family hunkered down during 2 ½-day power outage in late October, using flashlights, plus the car battery as a cell phone charger. She “feels sorry for PG&E. We love our trees, and wires are going through those trees, and how could they possibly keep a spark from igniting in the state? I see them out trimming.”  Conway doesn’t know what the best solution is to fires and power outages in a state where population has grown and people have moved “into animal country. We’ve put ourselves in harm’s way.” 

Ironically, during the outage, she and her 10-year-old granddaughter read a novel set in the Gold Rush about a single mother of four living in Grass Valley when the whole town is wiped out, required reading at Amy’s school. “I’m just thankful to have a home that’s not burnt and lose everything,” Conway says. “I didn’t want to complain because they (PG&E) are trying to keep our house from being burned.”  

Her family has lived in Emerald Hills since 1973 but a more immediate pressure is economic. “We’re feeling the pinch,” says Conway, who worries they may have to leave the Bay Area. “What disturbs me is the fact that service people can’t afford to here, people who are being pushed out because they can’t afford to stay.” 

Likewise, her neighbor Elizabeth Yapp, a schoolteacher who has lived in her house 29 years, says if it weren’t for that, gentrification would force her out.  She too worries about service workers and young teachers being unable to get a foothold.  

Yapp vividly recalls being able to see from her house the flames that were devouring homes in the Oakland hills firestorm in 1991 and doesn’t have a problem with PG&E shutting off her power, “because that’s a small price to pay not to lose your house.” She hikes in nearby Edgewood Park and is glad to see how busy PG&E has been removing trees and other fuel and thinks the utility has been to a degree made a scapegoat. 

“I really feel like, yes they made mistakes,” she says. “But there’s a lot of people who have been quick to point the blame at PG&E. I think it’s really a more complicated problem.” 

Why we’re more vulnerable to wildfires

Three hundred plus years on, Sir Issac Newton’s singular insight that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction rings true. High Bay Area housing costs have sent commuters to distant, more affordable areas, which adds to traffic. Communities have sprung up in less expensive wildland areas, which had fires in the past – but they didn’t threaten whole subdivisions.  

California gave birth to the environmental movement, but the state today “has too much vegetation,” according to Gordon.  

“When John Muir arrived and looked at the Yosemite Valley, at that point California had about 40 trees to an acre,” he says, citing a 2018 Little Hoover Commission study. “Today we have 400 to 600 trees at least to an acre. And it’s just too much vegetation.” Native Americans used to burn forests out periodically to reduce undergrowth, to keep trees spaced apart, which helps to keep fire from spreading through the canopies. “In a thinner forest, fire stays on the ground. It doesn’t climb up to the canopy. It’s easier to fight and put out.” The U.S. Forest Service this year put the number of dead trees on federal, state and private land at more than 147 million. 

The state has experienced a multi-year drought, and Gordon is convinced that the climate has changed for hotter, dryer summers.

“Twenty-five percent of all Californians now live in an area that’s designated as high or very high fire risk, and that includes parts of Redwood City,” he notes. “Emerald Hills is included on that map. So we’ve got climate conditions which make it right for a fire, we’ve got too much vegetation, which makes it right for a fire, and we’ve got infrastructure in the utility lines that has not been maintained or upgraded. And not all of our fires are started by utilities. But it is a source of major fires that we’ve certainly experienced.” 

Communities are not defenseless

The Woodside Fire Protection District, which serves Woodside, Portola Valley and some other rural areas including Emerald Hills, has had a proactive “chipper” program for more than a decade to help residents of Woodside and Portola Valley clear around their homes. Between May and November, they can leave brush, branches and tree limbs at curbside to be picked up at no charge. 

Fire Marshal Denise Enea says her department also removes “target hazards,” especially trees with a potential to start fires. They may be in compliance with PG&E’s distance parameters but still overhang power lines. “Removing the ignition sources,” she points out, “that’s prevention in a nutshell. People have to remember that. Let’s just try not to have the ignitions start in the first place.” 

The multi-agency organization FIRE Safe San Mateo County focuses on the urban/wildland interface. The groups works collaboratively to assist each other, such as in seeking grants like the $100,000 in Measure K funding that the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors set aside to extend the chipper program to high-risk areas like Emerald Hills, Enea says. Work is also being done to map vegetation and to get better at predicting wind patterns.  

The fire season just ended, Enea notes, and the fire protection district came through “pretty much unscathed this year. I think a lot of it has to do with how much work we’re doing, how much our residents are doing.” 

PG&E’s rolling blackouts that began Oct. 25 eventually affected communities along both sides of the Skyline, as well as parts of Redwood City and San Carlos. The outage also took down telephone and television service for many as well, leaving people without a way to receive emergency alerts and updates.  More than 11 percent of cellphone towers in the county failed to work, according to Federal Trade Commission reports.  

Providers have come under criticism for not having resilient battery or generator power.  Assemblyman Mullin and State Senator Jerry Hill, both Democrats, say legislation will be introduced to require cellphone companies to have longer-lasting back-up power systems. “We’re going to be requiring them to have a sustainable system that will last 72 hours, maybe more,” Sen. Hill says. 

During the late October outage, Portola Valley Town Hall opened, as did a firehouse in Woodside, where kids could get internet access to do their homework. Residents could even take a shower. Fire Chief Rob Lindner says people in the wooded communities are used to power outages and are pretty well prepared. Many already have generators.  

Concerns remain

San Carlos received input from community members at Nov. 13 meeting about how to prepare for a future of power outages. Several expressed concern about making sure that the vulnerable elderly and people with medical problems were taken care of.  

Some small businesses in the outage areas experienced losses. 

Amit Sharma, who has owned Bonfare Market at Canyon at Oak Knoll Roads in Redwood City for three years, had to throw out big crates of dairy goods, plus sandwiches, milk and cheese. “We lost three days of business and close to $10, $11 grand for two days,” he says. With the lost product, the total was  “close to $20 grand altogether. … For a small business, it’s really hard to take a big hit like that and recover.” 

On the other hand, Khoa Pham, owner of Single Cylinder Repair in San Carlos, experienced three or four days of “frenzy” as customers desperate for back-up power came to buy a generator. Pham carries several models of Honda generators ranging in price from $900 to about $4,600. “There were people who drove hours to get a generator,” says Pham, who sold about 50 machines in October — and ran out. 

Generators and even the increasingly popular solar panels can have “issues” too. The California Air Resources Board issued a Nov. 7 news release noting that gas and diesel generators can emit a lot of pollutants and provided an online tool (ww2.arb.ca.gov) to help consumers compare.  

Being without electricity at her Emerald Hills home was like “a huge step back in time,” says Realtor Vicki Constantini. “No TV, no wi-fi, no nothing.” She took laundry to her mother-in-law’s house, but then she and husband Oscar decided to buy a generator. “At first you’re so thrilled,” she says, “but the generator noise drove me nuts.” 

Plenty of blame to go around

The fires and utility-related problems are huge, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E and other utilities, has been faulted for failing to foresee the risk of fire and forcing them to prepare. Critics say the PUC has not devoted adequate staffing and resources to inspection and monitoring utilities.  

“The PUC and the regulators allowed PG&E to keep working, keep going along and not modernize their facilities, not modernize their grid,” says Tom McCune, a recently appointed member of the Belmont City Council who was vice president of facilities for the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1990s. “So I think they’re both responsible for this. PG&E should have said long ago, ‘Hey there are parts of our grid that were built in the 1920s and it’s not safe and we need to upgrade it.’ And the PUC should have said, ‘Yes, you’re right. We’ll allow some kind of surcharge or something.’ There’s got to be a way to pay for it.” 

Hill has been a particularly vocal critic of PG&E, based on staff investigations, public record requests, hearings, audits and whistleblower reports, but characterizes the relationship with the PUC as for too long “cozy” and “corrupt.”  In the past, he says, appointments to the PUC have been political plums, but Hill thinks more recent ones are a step in the right direction. Created in the state Constitution over 100 years ago, the PUC’s broad responsibility and cumbersome processes also need to be reformed so action can be timely and effective, according to Hill, which may require state legislation.  

He came to his unfavorable view of PG&E as an outgrowth of the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010, and says the same underlying problems with old infrastructure, inadequate maintenance, lack of investment and inspections apply to the Camp Fire of 2018. “So we have the exact same circumstance 10 years later on a different part of their business.” 

Hill does, however, feel corrective work over the past decade on the gas system has been successful, including requirements to test – and document the tests of gas lines, or if necessary, replace them.  PG&E also built “a phenomenal a training center in Winters” for all new employees, where a section of the exploded San Bruno pipe is displayed. 

“Their system is much better—but it was forced on them and that’s what will have to happen, I believe, with the electric system,” the senator says. 

“Look this is decades of neglect and decades of the CPUC looking the other way,” Assemblyman Mullin says. “We’re now dealing with the fallout of all that incompetence and intransigence with a backdrop of increased risk and challenge due to climate change. So this is very much an incredibly messy situation that will probably end up dominating and defining Governor Newsom’s first term as governor and will probably dominate the remainder of my tenure in the Assembly.” 

PG&E sought bankruptcy protection last January, citing more than $30 billion in potential fire-related liability costs. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s views of the settlement for fire victims and restructuring will be critical as PG&E strives to meet a June 30 deadline to exit from bankruptcy and participate in a California wildfire fund. In December, the governor rejected a $13.5 billion settlement PG&E had worked out, largely because he didn’t think the plan will achieve the goal of providing safe and reliable power to customers.   

A federal bankruptcy judge early this year is expected to consider competing reorganization plans, one from shareholders and one from bondholders. Meanwhile, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has also been picking up supporters for a plan to turn PG&E into a customer-owned cooperative.  

10 yrs of planned shutoffs ‘completely unacceptable’

Whatever the outcome, both Mullin and Hill dismiss the prospect of 10 years of intentional power shutoffs as completely unacceptable.  

“They need to harden their system as San Diego Electric & Power did after their terrible fires in 2007,” Sen. Hill says. “They now use steel poles. No wooden poles to fall.” Wires are insulated so they won’t short out if a branch falls on top, and refined weather mapping and cameras help spot fires before they get out of hand. “We will all pay for that (investment),” he continues, “but it will make it a better, safer infrastructure that will prevent the need for a power shutoff.” 

Companies large and small are affected. “We’ve got a first-rate economy,” Sen. Hill says, “and we’re a first-world country with a third world utility. And you can’t sustain business with that. My sense is that we will see much more limited power shutoffs in the future. And they will be much more strategically and surgically implemented.”  

Mullin also plans to introduce legislation to place a $9 million to $12 million “resiliency” bond issue on the November ballot, which would include money for fire prevention and safety, as well sea level rise, flood control, clean beaches, safe drinking water, recycling and other items.  

Belmont’s McCune has suggested that a structure like TVA’s, which is a federally owned company, might be a solution for PG&E, which he doesn’t think has the resources to fix the grid. But the problem can’t just be allowed to fester, he says. Long-range facility planners for corporations must now add to the mix—after earthquakes and the ever-increasing cost of doing business in the Bay Area—the risk of wildfires and possible power shutdowns.  

Companies may keep some facilities on the Peninsula, Councilman McCune says, “but they don’t need to be headquartered here. And they don’t need to have their data centers here. They’re not going to totally pack up and leave, but they’ll move major functions out of this area. … I agree we need this fixed, just for the right thing to do kind of reasons, but we need to get it fixed for economic reasons.” 

About that ‘leaving the Bay Area’ dilemma 

Tim Harrison had to cancel a 49er alumni party at his Canyon Inn restaurant because of the October shutdown and also throw out a lot of perishables. “It seems like after 47 years (in business), you might want to be able to relax,” he laments. “It’s still very hard to carry on a small independent business.”  

When the restaurant opened, his monthly PG&E bill ran about $250. Now it’s $3,000. Water and garbage were about $100. Now they’re $1,100 to $1,200 a month. “Everything is about 10 times what it was.” 

So is the owner of the landmark eatery ready to join the rush out of California?  

He doesn’t hesitate in answering. “Where would I go? We’re digging in.” When he feels a little down, Harrison goes to work, because his employees and is customers cheer him up. “We’re in the community,” he says, “and I’m not leaving.” 

 This story was originally published in the January print edition of Climate Magazine.

1 Comment

  1. If all you are concerned with is keeping your necessities going in your home or business, just configure(instaneous kW or kWh/day) a back up generator to meet these needs.

    After 45 years in the renewable energy field(aurorasolar.us),the best ROI compared to battery backup(expensive, flamable, and 5-10 year lifetime) is to wire in a gas powered generator for the few days you need it per year.

    Kent Dogey

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