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Closing the arc

October 19, 2017

Tags: California fires, Santa Rosa, powerlines

Closing the arc

When I read the first reports of the fire bust in Napa-Sonoma, I thought it had the signature of an electrical storm. A frontal passage would also explain the winds, which follow this time of year from the high pressure in the front's wake. But I could find no confirmation of rogue thunderstorms. Officials were more consumed with coping with the exfoliating crisis than fussing over ignition puzzles. Causes could wait for the post-mortems that were sure to follow.

It now seems likely that the fires did start from an electrical storm but one that threw sparks from powerlines. How we choose to live on the land and how the land chooses to live had collided.
Some fire causes are technical, some social, some weird hybrids. Powerlines are technical. They are, today, what locomotives were a century ago. Trains cast sparks with abandon from smokestacks and brake shoes, and they often did it in landscapes shattered by the axe. Rail made logging and landclearing possible: it strewed slash and combustible debris along the right-of-way and as far back as loggers could reach. Then it sprinkled sparks over that fire-readied land. Often towns - all wood, even to sidewalks - dappled the scene. They burned like their surrounding countryside. From 1870 to the 1920s, most of the bad burns of history rode the rails.

The railways were powerful forces for settlement: it was no easy task to take them on in the name of fire protection. They remade the national estate, reorganized the national economy, and redefined landscape fire. They were engines, literal fire engines, of progress. But they were also engines for fires.

Even places that lacked a natural disposition to fire suffered. Take the Adirondacks in upstate New York. As rail opened up the mountains, loggers followed. Felling and railroading worked like scissors to cut through the forest. It was industrial slash and burn. In 1903 both trends reach a climax when, amid an unbreakable drought, the fires burned 600,000 acres. The right-of-ways became fuses that carried flame to detonating plateaus of slash. Paradoxically, the railroads were used to bring in extra firefighters and equipment. The new technology created the means to start fires and to help suppress them. But it was far easier to kindle than to contain.

Then what couldn't get worse did. The 1903 season featured spring fires; the 1908 season, fall fires. New York was at the end of a rolling thunder of fires that moved along the U.S.-Canadian border from Washington State to Maine. All the factors that made for big fires in the Adirondacks converged with almost preternatural cunning. Everything reached its peak - drought, logging, railroad construction, the over-extension of the warden system. When the rain and snow finally quenched the flames, a total of 380,000 acres had burned, much of it wrecked.

The worst single fire broke out near Long Lake West. Its origin makes a perfect symbol of how the disaster occurred. A spark from a Mohawk & Malone locomotive set a fire along the track near the hamlet. The responsible fire warden quickly had 150 men on the scene. The train bringing them to the scene, however, was itself setting new fires. The town of Long Lake West was soon cinders. By September 11 a line of fire stretched 12 miles from Horseshoe to Nehasane. What had been advertised as a self-reinforcing dynamo of progress was becoming a self-reinforcing engine of destruction. The season ended with 380,000 acres, several towns, resorts, and prime tourist sites in ash.

Yet the menace was tamed. Studies were commissioned, failures identified, fixes recommended. New laws were enforced, fines and lawsuits applied economic pressure, engines were compelled to replace coal with oil as fuel, suitable spark arrestors were invented, right-of-ways were cleaned of debris, lines were patrolled. A lot of boring jobs added up. Fire starts declined, and damaging fires plummeted. Locomotives have not been a meaningful source of fire problems for decades.
Today's equivalent is powerlines. The nation's electrical grid has a similar significance in its social, economical, and political power. It makes modern suburbs possible. Yet it illustrates how the built environment can interact with natural landscapes to lethal effects. It's not that powerlines start a lot of fires, but that they start bad fires because the winds that cause them to fail or topple trees on them make ideal conditions for explosive fires. The liability issues are such that some companies have threatened to shut down power during major winds rather than face bankrupting lawsuits.

Powerlines started major fires in California's 2003 and 2007 fire sieges. They started the 2011 Las Conchas fire that burned into the outskirts of Los Alamos and set new standards for savage burning. They kindled, in several sites, the 2011 fire complex that blasted Bastrop County, Texas. They supplemented the surge of fire from Great Smokey Mountain National Park that burned into Gatlinburg. In fact, it became impossible to tease out which of the fires - those from the Smokey Mountains burn or those set by the winds that pushed trees into powerlines - were legally liable for what damages. Now they have apparently burned into Santa Rosa.

Many of the problems of fire management do not have technical fixes. They depend on social choices hammered out in politics - appropriate land use, the purpose of public lands, competing economic interests, cultural values, and philosophies. But mitigating fires started by powerlines is, like stopping the locomotive fire problem, amenable to technological tweaks.

The solution will not lie with single stroke, but with lots of decisions, inventions, collaborations, and plain boring discussions about how we transmit electricity across the countryside. But it can be done. For years the country has discussed the value - the necessity - of overhauling our creaky grid. Why not fold fire mitigation into that agenda?

Otherwise the anode of sprawling towns and the cathode of burning countrysides will continue to arc into tragedy. We're relentlessly shrinking the distance between those poles and intensifying the charge. We don't have a technical solution for managing free-burning fire in Yosemite or Yellowstone. We do know how to keep houses and cities from burning. We know how to mitigate powerline sparking. We can't fix all of the nation's fire problems. But we can make progress on this one.