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Wildfires and the Utility: A Recurring Climate Equity Nightmare in the West

This blog was coauthored by Larissa Lopez, Program Coordinator and Radiah Shabazz, Communications Officer.

As the impacts of climate change intensify globally, across California, hundreds of communities are having their electricity cut off in preemptive efforts to mitigate the growing threat of wildfire driven by dry conditions, mounting winds, and out-of-date infrastructure.

 

Even as wildfire season draws to a close, the repercussions from the most recent series of preemptive outages continue to plague northern California communities, disproportionately impacting people of color and low-income residents. 

The first preemptive outages were initiated in early October, and eventually affected about 600,000 Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) customers. Outages continued to mount until October 27, when over 1 million customers—about 3 million people—went without power for the day.

Because of outdated infrastructure and poor maintenance on the part of PG&E, the preemptive shut offs are the only option. The prior two years (2017-2018), utility equipment has sparked wildfires that had claimed hundreds of lives, cost billions in property damage, and drove unmeasured forced migration of residents – all of which led to an unprecedented $30 billion liability projection for PG&E, literally bankrupting the investor-owned utility.    

However, the hamfisted approach PG&E took to protect people and property (and also likely to shield themselves from liability) backfired into a chaotic nightmare as poor customer communication and misinformation drove confusion and stress, vulnerable residents were left without essential services, and local, state, and multinational businesses based in the Bay Area took on billions in losses. 

Now, as wildfire season comes to a close, we are still left questioning how, in the face of climate change, do we equitably adapt to the growing threat of wildfire when burying power lines seems like a distant option. While this question is exigent to the people of California, it will also begin to be a pressing threat for those all along the Pacific Coast. One place to look for solutions are local groups and organizations who are using on-the-ground insights and assets to take matters into their own hands.   

Nicole Lim is Executive Director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC) in Santa Rosa, CA, a new partner in ISC’s Partnership for Resilient Communities (PRC). Due to the preemptive outages, the Museum experienced a loss of power and gas, forcing it to close for a week. Lim says many museum employees also had to evacuate their homes. Between poor communication and lack of support for vulnerable residents, the outages exacerbated existing inequities in communities throughout one of the least equitable regions in the country.

Confusion Rather than Clarity

A series of delays in the outage process left many residents in a state of confusion and panic. Those notified via texts or emails from PG&E (if they’d opted-in and had service to get such communications) received scant information. Lim noted that text message alerts suggested only a “potential impact,” and that even the warning was distributed disproportionately towards people who owned their homes, as those notified had to have been in PG&E’s customer database. 

“But this doesn’t always represent a household,” Lim explained, noting that landlords or building managers may be the de facto contact for renters, but may not always communicate an outage threat to their tenants. Notifications about outages also overlapped with evacuation notices, which Lim says created “anxiety and hysteria.” Despite having minimal information, residents had to make quick decisions that present differently for different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, including child care considerations, food purchasing and preparation, short and long distance travel, and life-or-death medical decisions.

Disproportionate Outage Impacts

These quick decisions in the midst of chaos often hit regional Tribal communities the hardest. “Native communities are disproportionately impacted by many different health issues and face deep historical trauma and mental health concerns, so this type of situation is very triggering,” Lim said. 

And still, with the innate will to survive, these communities make a way when one doesn’t always seem clear and figure out how to cope in the midst of tragedy. Lim described how the mandatory evacuations forced her family members to relocate. At the height of the chaotic period, she had six dogs, four cats, two children, an infant, and her parents in her home. Her father requires dialysis three times a week; yet all centers in the area were closed because of the loss of power, and he was forced to go five days without treatment. His chronic condition and the inability to receive treatment was a major concern for Lim and her family during the weeklong outage and blazing fires. As detrimental as going a week without necessary medical treatment is, he might be considered lucky to have escaped this dangerous situation relatively unscathed—power outages have major impacts on vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those with disabilities, who can struggle to reach facilities with electricity.

While hospitals are ready with backup generators for outages, these facilities are not equally accessible to all who need electricity in an emergency. Even if people reliant on electrically-powered medical care equipment and services are able to reach a hospital, cost remains a barrier. With nearly one in three American Indian and Alasakan Natives uninsured, a hospital visit, even in times of state-wide catastrophe, comes at a high price for many elderly American Indians.1 

Sophie’s Choice: Hunker down, or strategic retreat

Their alternatives? Take their chances with inoperable electric wheelchairs, breathing machines, oxygen, suction and home dialysis equipment, perishing essential food and medication due to lack of refrigeration; or, moving to an area with power, either temporarily or permanently.

Neither solution is simple. For some, prepping for survival in place, or evacuation is relatively easy, but it requires financial resources that to-this-day are denied to marginalized communities—many of communities of color and low-income people—by way of systemic racism and ongoing disenfranchisement. And for Native communities, evacuation is much easier said than done. “This is Native land, my ancestral territory. Cultural values mandate that we’re here and safeguarding our land and cultural resources; so, packing up and moving isn’t an option,” said Lim. 

“This is Native land, my ancestral territory. Cultural values mandate that we’re here and safeguarding our land and cultural resources; so, packing up and moving isn’t an option.”

Nicole Lim, Executive Director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center

Community-based Solutions to Community Problems

In the wake of this year’s fires, Lim and her team at CIMCC are returning to their work with renewed energy. With the help of the Partnership for Resilient Communities, Lim will organize Native people in Santa Rosa to establish community-articulated climate resilience priorities and advocate for these priorities to be included in the updated Santa Rosa Climate Action Plan.

CIMCC will also begin the process to expand its climate emergency management plans by installing solar panels and battery storage on the museum facility. Doing so is a major step  to transform the property into a full-fledged emergency resilience hub, which could mean that vulnerable residents will have access to electric-powered medical interventions, refrigeration, and communications. With a powered hub, CIMCC will be able to increase residents’ overall emergency preparedness and access to resources during and after wildfires and the preemptive outages they bring, despite whatever action is taken by PG&E. 

The concept of solar + storage is catching on throughout the country. In the wake of the most recent fires, several Northern California local energy associations joined together to release a joint solicitation for mass installation of solar + storage on residences and businesses. To their credit, the agencies call for proposals includes “goals of supporting low-income residents, customers with life-dependent medical equipment, and residents and businesses located in disadvantaged communities.” Community-led initiatives like CIMCC’s and another PRC partner in the area, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, can help make those goals a reality.

References

  1. Artiga, S., Arguello, R., & Duckett, P. (2013). Health Coverage and Care for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Health Coverage and Care for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Kaiser Family Foundation.
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