Oct 16, 2017
When dry winds began to whip through Northern California in early October, wooden electrical poles snapped and crashed to the ground, transformers exploded and downed power lines sent off sparks. Very shortly afterwards, the first wildfires began to rage. Within six days, fires at 16 locations engulfed more than 200,000 acres, reduced thousands of homes and other structures to ash, and killed 40 people, making it the deadliest week of wildfires in California’s history.
Spokespersons for Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE) tried to pass off blame for starting the fires on “hurricane force” winds of over 75 miles per hour (mph). But, according to the weather report, the winds where the fires started only reached 30 or 40 mph at their peak, that is, substantially under hurricane strength. In fact, the winds were much lower than the speed that power lines must be able to withstand under state law: 56 mph.
No, PGE just never spent enough money to properly maintain the electrical infrastructure, leaving it vulnerable to windy conditions that are hardly unprecedented in Northern California.
This is no surprise. PG&E has been repeatedly found responsible for often deadly fires and explosions. One example: PG&E was found guilty of 739 counts of negligence and fined 30 million dollars for a fire in 1994 that was started by trees touching its high-voltage wires. The fire near the town of Rough and Ready destroyed 12 homes and an historic 19th century school house. Afterward, prosecutors found that PG&E had diverted nearly 80 million dollars for tree trimming and other maintenance into profits and executive bonuses.
In September 2015, state investigators found that a pine tree in Amador County came in contact with a power line and sparked the Butte Fire, which burned more than 70,800 acres, destroyed 549 homes and killed two people.
The company was also fined $1.6 billion dollars after it was found negligent in causing the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
If California’s infamous “three strikes law” ever applied to corporations, PG&E, its executives and top stockholders would be serving life without parole.
But PG&E wasn’t the only one responsible for this tragedy. Real estate developers made big profits by constructing towns, homes and businesses in a region in which fires used to occur regularly. As a natural part of the environment, smaller fires used to clear dead brush and trees, allowing new life to develop out of more fertile soil. But once there were houses and businesses, smaller fires were suppressed, allowing the build-up of dried brush and trees, which was made much worse by the extreme weather conditions of the last years, especially the very long drought.
So, the sparks from the downed power lines and exploding transformers fell on abundant fuel made up of many years worth of dried brush and trees.
Those raging fires that destroyed so much were the result of decisions made by capitalists only out to increase their profits and wealth, no matter what the cost to people and the environment.