Below are full transcripts for each of the five videos on wildfires by UCLA expert Stephanie Pincetl, professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and founding director of the institute's California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.
1. Are there more homes in places that are more susceptible to wildfires? (0:34–1:00)
California has been very, very lax in its land-use policies, particularly at the county level, and we have enabled the building of homes on the urban fringe at an unprecedented rate and a continued rate. So we are now in a position of really having put many, many people at risk in quite high-fire-prone areas in suburban developments.
2. Why are we seeing more fires in populated areas? (1:07–1:24)
The more humans interact with this zone that is flammable and always has been flammable, the higher the chances of igniting a fire. So it’s really a matter of the numbers of people and activities that have increased enormously in the zone that is highly flammable.
3. How big a factor is rural and exurban development? (1:31–1:53)
Rural and exurban development in California is probably the primary cause of what they call wildfire. … We call them wildfires because they are not where humans live predominantly; they are really started at that kind of urban fringe and then spread quite rapidly in undeveloped zones, so it’s really due to the land-use pattern.
4. Are cities more vulnerable to the effects of wildfire now? (1:59–3:02)
Are cities more vulnerable now? That’s a really interesting question. I would say the numbers of incidences of fires in cities is very low. We’ve done an extraordinarily good job with the materials that we build with and with fire prevention control, fire extinguishers, health and safety codes. However, suburban development is not urban development. Suburban development is suburban development, it’s dispersed, there’s vegetation in between the homes and they increasingly are closer to undeveloped areas that are natural vegetation that is susceptible to fire on a seasonal basis but also susceptible to fires if you ignite it. … There are really very few major urban fires anymore, city fires. But increasingly we’re seeing the fire incidences in these areas that are against highly flammable, natural vegetation, which wouldn’t burn normally unless it was ignited.
1. How do the aging infrastructures of electrical utilities contribute to wildfires? (1:00–2:42)
The utilities’ infrastructure runs through highly flammable areas. There’s just no question about that because we bring electricity long distance into the urbanized areas. So the more that that electricity goes through highly burnable areas – we’re not really maintaining the corridors well – the likelihood of fires being ignited increases. The numbers of thousands and thousands of miles of those wires makes it quite a challenge for those utilities to maintain a clean corridor, to maintain an assurance that there’s no flammable materials nearby. Because, remember, many of those fires occur when there’s a very high wind factor, and so even if the corridor itself has been fairly well-maintained, if a tree happens to fall onto a wire or in that general vicinity, because of wind, you get ignitions. So part of this whole question is, can we move towards a model of generation that doesn’t require so much dependence on far-flung electricity generation into these urban areas? And I think that’s part of really thinking about a more distributive generation system, microgrids, really thinking about the fire proximity and other hazards that these long transmission lines are subject to, and becoming much more resilient in how we deploy our next generation of electricity generation.
2. What’s the danger in supplying power for the greatest amount of power use? (2:49–3:45)
There’s a whole new way of thinking that has to be developed around how we get our electricity and where it’s from. … So, no one is ever told you can’t build that big of a house because we’re not going to supply you that much electricity if you have all your plug-in everythings, and you can’t do that. Nobody ever says enough. So as we keep chasing bigger houses and more power “needs,” quote unquote, then it puts more of a burden on the system, and the system has to be bigger, the system has to be more resilient. So I think we also have to start thinking about, well, what’s a sufficient amount of power to live well that doesn’t require rate payers as a group to essentially subsidize increased use at the high end, which is predominately pushing the need for more and more generation, or more and more electricity, to be brought into the state.
3. How are climate change and urban expansion into wild areas increasing wildfires in California? (3:51–5:34)
We have had, like most of the United States, a policy to suppress fire and not to do controlled burns or allow fires to burn, we have built up such a reservoir of vegetation that, with a drying climate, that stuff is like a tinder box. … And the more we build in hazardous areas or fire prone areas, or places that haven’t had control burns, where the vegetation management hasn’t been very consistent because it costs money, because people don’t like it, then you have an increased incidence of fire. So there’s not a single driver. It’s a set of multiple factors. …The forest service attempted to do controlled burns in the San Gabriel mountains and the national forest. But because of urban encroachment, people were very upset when there was a controlled burn because they were afraid it would get out of control, of course. They also didn’t like the ash falling on their homes, of course, or in their swimming pools. And their Air Quality Management District would restrict their burning periods to the winter months, because there was less air pollution generated in that period from fires compared to ozone and other things. But that’s not the time, the optimum time to burn, for the habitat and for the release of these seeds that are fire-dependent to, to become fertile. So the whole system was completely out of whack. And so when on top of it you get a drying climate, on top of it you get an urban incursion, then you have the perfect storm for a very fire-friendly environment.
4. How do prior errors in forest management contribute to wildfires? (5:39–6:57)
There’s just more trees in the Sierra Nevada than there has been historically for thousands and thousands of years. There are other aspects to that, if, when you have so many trees they also need a lot more water, they retain a lot more water in the forest. And so stream flows are reduced, due to having so many trees needing the water and using the water. It’s a kind of really complex and interwoven system that has lots of different kinds of repercussions. So you’d get more ground water recharge if you had less trees, you’d get more stream flows if you had less trees, you’d get less fire if you had less trees, you’d get a more healthy habitat for all kinds of birds and animals if you had less trees. But somehow, over the course of the twentieth century, fire was seen as the enemy of healthy forests, paradoxically. You get more disease in the trees because you have too many trees, they’re not able to grow in a healthy manner and have sunlight and have access to nutrients and water, so it’s a really very complex situation.
5(a). What would it take to fix aging electrical infrastructure? (7:03–8:28)
Lots and lots of money. [Laughter] No. To fix aging infrastructure requires an enormous amount of investment. And in the current structure of the investor on utilities that’s pretty difficult because shareholders expect a certain rate of return, … the rate payers rightfully feel like they shouldn’t be paying for backlogged maintenance, why hasn’t the utility been maintaining this all along. And the question is should we continue to throw money at an infrastructure that is inherently vulnerable. So not only are those wires vulnerable to wildfires, but they’re also vulnerable to extreme heat. So when it gets hotter and hotter, the wires transmit much less efficiently. They sag, and you get an, a several percentage point reduction in the amount of energy that can get transmitted across those wires. So you get yet another problem, and that is you have a good system that is inherently vulnerable to increased heat in terms of its efficiency. So there’s a whole set of factors that really suggest that we need to rethink the utility model and rethink this modernist idea of a centralized power plant.
5(b). Does our aging electrical infrastructure need to be fixed or reimagined? (8:34–10:09)
Similar for lots of infrastructures, like water infrastructure, or sewage treatment plants, the modernist paradigm was that you could really build an efficient system that was very centralized. And today we’re realizing that conditions are much more varied across the landscape, we’re not able to satisfy the need as efficiently or as effectively with these large scale infrastructure systems because of different kinds of new vulnerabilities. And maybe a more appropriate way to meet the needs is to think about what the actual on-the-ground needs are and build up from there, rather than assume a top-down view of what all the needs are. And so that implies much more distributive generation. Now, economists generally feel that it’s more efficient to have centralized infrastructure. It’s cheaper. I’m not sure that actually pencils out in the end if you take into account the life cycle cost; if you take into account all of the risks associated with that. And you also think about things like energy democracy, so if people would like more control over their own power. … There’s, I think, a really important moment now to really rethink the centralized modernist system that was so successful in doing what it did in the twentieth century for those conditions.
6. Is aging electrical infrastructure a major contributor to wildfire ignition sources? (10:15–12:01)
Aging infrastructure is a contributor to California wildfires. However, I wouldn’t say that it’s the sole contributor. It is a contributor because of other kinds of things that are going on at the same time, including the fact that we have not been doing controlled burns over the past hundred years. We have not been doing forest thinning. And so, when you have an aging infrastructure running through forested areas that haven’t been maintained themselves, the chances of that ignition occurring is much, much higher. And it’s not up to the utilities to really manage forest health by doing controlled burns for the forest. So it’s an infrastructure that is embedded in a larger system that itself hasn’t been very well managed. The other thing, of course, is that because these are often wind driven events, the wind itself may create an additional hazard for that infrastructure, in the sense that wires may end up touching in a way that they shouldn’t be touching and sparking an ignition, a tree limb may be carried by the wind and hit one of those wires. So it’s a, it’s a complicated set of factors, but it is a fact that infrastructure was extraordinarily costly to put in, and is extraordinarily costly to maintain because of its sheer size, so that really calls into question whether it’s a reasonable expectation that the utilities can economically maintain that infrastructure.
7. Why weren’t power lines a significant contributor to wildfires before? (12:07–13:08)
Why the power lines weren’t significant contributors to wildfires before is a question that I actually haven’t thought about. So I don’t really know why they weren’t, or if they weren’t. … I think that partly it’s because the fuel build-up has just continued over the decades. Say in the ‘60s they weren’t a problem, but since the ‘60s, how many years is that, 60 years, gives you a lot of time for vegetation to build up. So I think that part of it is that the infrastructure itself hasn’t been upgraded continuously, the vegetation has continued to grow, and the demands on that grid have also continued to increase. So I think it’s probably a question that has to be investigated case by case and really look at that carefully, maybe an illusion on our part.
8. How are utilities coping with the liability issues? (13:14–14:41)
Utilities are expected to cope with the liability that comes about due to the way in which they manage their infrastructure. That’s been an expectation that is often not fulfilled in reality. … The state of California has also been fairly responsive to the utilities in terms of helping them manage their liabilities by enabling the utility to raise their rates, or, um, figuring insurance schemes to reduce the burden on the utility itself for the kind of management practices that it’s engaged in. …When you have a publicly regulated private monopoly, the question of liability becomes very complex. The public utilities commission, one could say, neglected its duties in really having the utilities have a very rigorous and inspected schedule for maintaining their infrastructure. You could blame them. You could blame the rate payers who aren’t willing to pay what the true cost of the electricity is for maintaining the grid. You could blame the shareholders for being too greedy and not wanting to provide enough money for the utilities to maintain its infrastructure. There’s a lot of blame to be shared in this situation and the burden of liability is I think not that straightforward.
9. Is turning off the power a reasonable solution to prevent wildfires? (14:48–15:51)
The utilities have been turning off the power to reduce the risk of wildfire ignitions during periods of high winds and extremely dry conditions. I don’t know at this point that the utilities have any finer grain tools to use other than shutting the whole thing down. … So back to this idea that utilities need now to be built up from the ground than the top down … Today back up generation of the utilities consists of diesel generators that they truck in to different places. So you can imagine a situation where there is a wildfire, so called wildfire, or potential wildfire, you have these trucks lugging these diesel generators to communities so they can plug in and get some electricity. The whole thing is kind of like a bandaid situation, it’s like bailing wire and duct tape.
1. What policy changes are needed to prevent wildfires? (0:35–1:44)
Preventing wildfires at the urban fringe is going to require pretty substantial land use planning changes. Those land use planning changes essentially are that we can no longer build in fire-prone areas. That’s actually the only way you’re going to prevent igniting wildfires, and having fires. You can harden buildings and up the code for buildings that are built in wildfire areas or fire-prone areas, but I think that’s going to be entirely insufficient, and very costly. … On the other hand, if the counties had to pay for their own firefighting, you bet that land wouldn’t be built, because it would be completely unaffordable. So what happens is these individual counties externalize the cost of their land-use decisions on everybody in the state. And that, I think, can no longer be acceptable, because I’m not interested in paying for a land-use decision that was made by Fresno county to enrich private property owners, essentially.
2. What are some other risks of building in fire-prone areas, and can we protect against them? (1:51–3:15)
There are lots of other reasons we shouldn’t be building in those areas, including increased greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The state’s greenhouse gas emissions are going up from the transportation sector, yet we have legislation calling for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The infrastructure costs of building out there are very high. You have to build the roads; you have to build the power; you have to build the sewer; you have to bring the water. There -- It’s just not a land-use form that is a sustainable land-use form. And so, while on the surface, the houses that are built out in the periphery may appear less expensive, the full cost-accounting, including the cost of fuel for those people driving in and out to work, is very, very high. So we have to think of new policy approaches that take into account the full cost, that forbid really putting people in hazardous locations. And there’s no way to harden any of that effectively. There just isn’t. So it’s an illusion to think that we can chase after bad land-use practices with stronger codes. It simply isn’t going to work.
1. Do wealthy areas see faster fire-response times than poorer areas? (0:34–1:29)
Response times to fire vary across a sociodemographic characteristics. So what’s -- what we’re seeing is that wealthier areas can pay for their own private fire protection. And so clearly, they have much quicker response times than people who can't pay for that and expect the fire department of CalFire to come and save them from fire. So not only are we getting a kind of odd subsidy for wealthier people to live in more fire prone areas by socializing a lot of the costs, whether it’s habitat restoration, debris flows, or all kinds of things, but also they’re benefitting from being able to get more fire protection from private firefighters.
2. Is firefighting being privatized? (1:36–2:11)
The CalFire budget, since with all of the wildfires, has increased astronomically. At the same time, we’ve also seen a lot of increase in budgets for private firefighters as well. … Firefighting is extremely costly, and so it diverts funding from any sector into an activity that really doesn’t have a lot of benefit for society other than saving houses from fires. … It certainly has individual benefit, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but in fact if you think about how the money could be used to do other things, it does not seem like the wisest way to spend taxpayer money or private money.
3. Is climate change a big factor in increasing forest fires? (2:17–3:40)
In California, the climate has been warming, just as it has been across the globe. And as the climate warms, and we get a very uneven precipitation regime across the state; we’re getting periods of increased heat and dryness; which obviously, makes the vegetation more fire prone. So … climate change has an effect on increased fire. Is it the driver of increased fire? Probably not. The driver of increased fire is clearly human activity in highly flammable areas. If people weren’t there creating ignitions, it wouldn’t burn. It doesn’t just spontaneously combust, it’s not quite hot enough yet. But in fact, there are very few natural ignitions, because we don’t have lots of thunder and lightning and stuff like that, so there’s a relationship certainly between having a condition that is more flammable because of increased heat and less precipitation that’s enormously exacerbated by human activity in those same zones. So if you remove those humans, whether or not there would be more fire is completely an open question. Probably not. But because we are in those zones, there is increased fire.
1. Will logging help reduce wildfires? (0:34–2:03)
Forest practices are really, really important relative to forest fires. … And there’s been a lot of debate about whether we need to increase logging in the state to reduce the incidences of forest fire. Logging is not the same as controlled burning. And controlled burning is a method by which you are reducing the brush underneath the trees. … We also need to thin forests which may or may not be the same as logging, because what we have is a lot of very small trees that have grown up because there’s been no fire and no really intelligent forest thinning. There’s a big dilemma, of course, because those little trees aren’t necessarily suitable for furniture or a whole set of other kind of traditional uses of timber. … But there’s a difference between the controlled burning, the thinning and the logging. California has been pretty well-logged, and so the ability to log more intensely might not really yield any really good economically viable crop because we’ve been logging all along. Maybe in 50 years, maybe in 60 years, if the thinning takes place and those trees can grow back to a size that is really marketable.
2. Are there any barriers to thinning out forests? (2:09–3:30)
hat we have is a lot of very small trees that have grown up because there’s been no fire and no really intelligent forest thinning. … What’s happened in the state is that, as we’ve logged out most of the big timber, the sawmills have closed down, and so we no longer have the industrial capacity left to treat, to deal with small timber. And so, here, too, there’s a kind of interesting economic opportunity of recreating a forestry industry in the state using this small timber that’s been thinned out for different kinds of products. They could be wood pellets for heating, they could be pulp that goes into composite wood materials, a whole set of things, but we have actually, have gotten to the point in the state where we export all of the raw materials, we don’t process any of it in-state anymore, so there’s a gap there about what you do, if you had a healthy program for thinning, what do you do with all of that material? That’s a big question.
3. How do you balance maintaining forests as a carbon sink and oxygen-producer, versus thinning forests to prevent forest fires? (3:39–5:09)
The roll of the forest in carbon sequestration today has been front and center for carbon credits and carbon offsets and carbon mitigation, but there’s a lot of kind of ambiguity about size of tree, age of tree, and the maintenance of those carbon sinks. And so you, the idea that a tree is a tree is a tree has, is, has become pretty popular. … It’s a much more dynamic, diverse and again complicated set of vegetative interactions that take place with the atmosphere …because if you have those trees that are small and very unhealthy, their ability to actually sequester carbon is not very good. … So it’s not about the number of trees, it’s really more about the size and the health of the trees. … You want to manage that forest to mitigate the dangers of forest fires, which means you’re thinning, you’re doing controlled burning, and you’re encouraging the growth of trees that will be big and healthy over the longer run. You don’t want a tree that’s only 5 years old. How much sequestration is that going to do? Not very much. You want trees that are 100, that grow to 100, 150, 200, 250 years for their full ability to sequester carbon.
4. How is controlled burning different from a forest fire? (5:14–6:01)
Controlled burning is a method by which you are reducing the brush underneath the trees that is the highly ignitable substrate for the wildfires…. Fire, we know, emits a lot of CO2, so you really don’t want to be encouraging a forest health that will have lots of big fires. Controlled burning is another matter, they’re low brush fires and they don’t emit as much CO2 as these huge conflagrations, so you want to manage that forest to mitigate the dangers of forest fires, which means you’re thinning, you’re doing controlled burning, and you’re encouraging the growth of trees that will be big and healthy over the longer run.
5. Are there differences and environmental benefits to managed logging versus indiscriminate or commercially-focused logging? (6:07–7:31)
You get the most carbon sequestration out of a very healthy forest. … You have small trees that are young, you have middle-aged trees and you have old trees. And what you really are striving to do is encourage the growth, the healthy growth of the new trees by thinning sufficiently around what you perceive to be a really good specimen in order for that tree to have the opportunity to sequester carbon over the long term. You don’t want something that’s only sequestering carbon 10 or 15 years and it burns up. That’s really not the point. You want a tree that will be able to sequester carbon for 50 years, 100 years, 200 years, the full life-cycle of the tree, and then you harvest it and then you do something with it. But if you’re just logging indiscriminately, you’re not really thinking about forest health. … Forest health will achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions. Forest health will produce the kind of timber that we can use for commercial purposes, but we have to be patient and be there for the long-term because that’s – trees don’t grow that fast, and to make it really profitable but also work for biodiversity, work for carbon sequestration, we have to thin that forest and burn the undergrowth.