PG&E Didn't Start the Fire—This Time. But Human-Caused Fires Are on the Rise.

The combination of a warming planet and rapid urbanization near wildlands has provided kindling with a spark.
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Cal Fire firefighter Brandon Tolp monitors a firing operation while battling the Tubbs Fire on October 12th, 2017, near Calistoga, California.

Cal Fire firefighter Brandon Tolp monitors a firing operation while battling the Tubbs Fire on October 12th, 2017, near Calistoga, California.

California's largest utility got some rare good news on Thursday. After a year-long investigation, the state found Pacific Gas and Electric Company did not cause the Tubbs Fire, which devastated Northern California's wine country in 2017, as previously believed. PG&E's stock nearly doubled after the announcement, amid questions over bankruptcy claims and damages from other fires.

The report also shifted the blame to a private individual. A statement from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, identified the cause as a private electrical system next to a home.

According to the National Park Service, humans cause more than 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States. Owning faulty electrical equipment and living near increasingly dry wildlands doesn't mean someone should be blamed for a fire—except when it does. Legally, private individuals have been held responsible (and made to pay) for damages from wildfires started by their equipment. In 2013, the U.S. Forest Service sued a man whose warped electrical box sparked a fire in Palm Springs, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

After PG&E announced plans to file for bankruptcy earlier this month, facing an estimated $17 billion in damages from both 2017 and 2018 fires, shareholders and experts disputed liability for November's Camp Fire, which was tentatively linked to PG&E equipment. (Under state law, a utility is at fault for a wildfire even when it's not found to be negligent.) As Pacific Standard reported:

If PG&E gets out of costs due to climate change, the burden falls to either insurance companies, homeowners and business owners, public agencies, or all of the above, explains Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California–Los Angeles.

Now that PG&E has been (partially) exonerated, California Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters that it would likely be difficult for wildfire victims to recover damages, the Sacramento Bee reports.

Still, the fact remains that humans are causing wildfires at increasing rates—whether we ignite them purposefully or through a utility's faulty equipment. As PG&E argues, climate change has exacerbated the intensity and the area of land burned, but experts agree: The combination of a warming planet and rapid urbanization near wildlands has provided kindling with a spark.

This spark can take many forms: a cigarette butt, a car accident, fireworks. In 2018, investigators linked the Carr Fire to a spark from a flat tire and the County Fire to an improperly installed electric fence; last summer, Forrest Clark was charged with setting the Holy Fire in Orange County, and another man was charged in connection with the Cranston Fire. Although arson rates have been on the decline since the 1980s, USA Today reports that the last three years have marked an uptick in California arson cases, causing a collective $106 million in damages in 2016.

Even so, humans don't need to set fires to cause them. Research shows that the number of homes built in the wildland-urban interface, where people and wild landscapes intersect, has risen drastically, making more people vulnerable to—and likely to ignite—wildfires. Now, this region encompasses about one in three homes in the country. As wildfire policy expert Char Miller said in July: "Where people go, fires erupt. We're complicit in the very fires that we think are actually out there in nature."

In line with NPS data, outside analysis shows that 84 percent of wildfires between 1992 and 2012 were human-caused. Not only that, but the surface area burned by human-caused wildfires greatly exceeded that of those caused by lightning. The 2017 study, which examined all fires managed by federal or state agencies in the U.S., found that human causes tripled the length of the country's fire season, adding an average of 40,000 wildfires per year—and billions of dollars spent fighting them.

As California argues over who will pay for wildfire damages, the initial spark emerges as just one factor in the American West's ever-lengthening fire season. And some believe it might be the key to prevention: Insurance companies are refusing to protect homeowners near high-risk areas, and experts advocate for fire-related zoning measures—all to keep humans out of harm's way.

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