Bakersfield temperatures that edged up to the near triple digits recently were a reminder that summer is nearing and the threat of a very active wildfire season looms.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday recognized the threat. He announced he will include in his proposed budget $127 million for the Department of Emergency Services and $86 million for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to boost its firefighting response, including the hiring of 600 new employees. The proposed budget also will fund the creation of a 106-person wildfire safety division to oversee Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities.
Expect these wildfires to cause electrical blackouts that will affect residents and businesses in Kern County and Bakersfield. Now is the time to prepare.
Meteorologists and California fire officials report drought conditions have increased and expanded in Northern California and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s service area. A smattering of spring showers and snowfall last month brought a small reprieve from what is expected to be dangerous wildfire conditions throughout the West.
While conditions in Southern California do not appear to be as dire, wildfires there also pose challenges for firefighters and residents.
Compounding the threat is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is straining firefighting and government resources, and forcing changes in the way this year’s fires will be fought.
A shortage of firefighters is expected to result from COVID-19 illnesses. Low-level state inmates are being released from prisons to prevent the virus’ spread. These inmates constitute about 43 percent of California’s wildfire fighting forces. Mutual aid agreements also will be strained, as local governments stretch their depleted budgets. Hiring freezes are being imposed in many cities and counties, leaving firefighting positions unfilled.
National and state health guidelines, including maintaining “social distancing,” encouraging handwashing and discouraging the sharing of equipment also complicate wildfire responses. Fire camps, where firefighters sleep and eat together, are known for passing illnesses. State fire officials told reporters that this year’s wildfires will have to be hit fast and hard to keep them from spreading.
PG&E’s legal problems also add to the challenges. Because of the company’s culpability for years of wildfires caused by downed power lines, PG&E is under court orders to upgrade its system, install sensors and shutoff devices, trim trees and do regular systemwide inspections and maintenance.
Despite company claims to the contrary, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup recently slammed PG&E for being “years away from compliance with California law and with its own wildfire mitigation plan.” Alsup oversees the case against PG&E resulting from the lethal 2010 San Bruno gas eruption.
That leaves customers, including those in Bakersfield and Kern County, squeezed between a likely raging wildfire season, reduced firefighting resources and a giant utility company ordered to keep its power lines from snapping from high winds and lack of maintenance.
The utility company has responded with its Public Safety Power Shutoff response that shuts down power on transmission lines to prevent sparks from igniting wildfires. Local customers experienced a few of these shutdowns last year.
But by most accounts, 2019 was a relatively “mild” wildfire season that benefited from a rainy year. Customers will not be so lucky this summer and fall. Drought conditions have returned. What rain that did fall mostly helped create more fuel to burn in the dry forest.
This month, PG&E began alerting its customers to the dangers and urged immediate action:
- Go to PG&E at www.pge.com/mywildfirealerts or call the PG&E contact center at 1-866-743-6589 to provide or update contact information — phone numbers, mobile phone numbers and email addresses. If your home or business is served by PG&E, but you are not the account holder, sign up for alerts by your ZIP code at www.pge.com/pspszipcodealerts.
- Create an emergency plan, review it with your friends, family and neighbors, and practice evacuations.
- Check in with your elderly neighbors and friends who may have special needs.
- Create a go-bag or 72-hour kit that can be used if you need to evacuate.
- Prepare an emergency supply kit with food, water, flashlights, batteries, medications and other critical supplies.
- Identify a kennel where your pet can be taken in a power shutdown or emergency.
- Clear defensible space around your home or business.
Use the COVID-19 stay-at-home time to prepare for wildfires.