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California needs a Marshall Plan to combat these wildfires


With the Kincade Fire, things once again have spiraled out of control. The poor folks of Sonoma County once again have fled by the hundreds of thousands, ordered to evacuate entire cities—Healdsburg, Windsor—as the monstrous inferno grows.

On top of that, close to three million Californians are presently without power, and have been since the weekend, as PG&E has turned off their electricity, in order to forestall downed power lines that spark wildfires. As I write these words (Monday morning), the weekend’s winds—which were insane!—have calmed. But the National Weather Service is calling for another “wind event” starting tomorrow, meaning the thousands of firefighters battling the blaze have a scant 24-36 hours to tamp them down, before they’re once again helpless.

This, they manifestly cannot do.

Coming after the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons, Kincade (and dozens of smaller fires across the state) clearly represent the new normal; and it cannot be allowed to continue. Our new Governor, Gavin Newsom, is off to a good start, correctly identifying PG&E’s insufficient efforts at prevention and response. But he knows that PG&E isn’t the only culprit. California is up against climate change, in the form of windier, drier, hotter weather. The state also is up against its habit of past decades of allowing homes to be built in historic fire zones, where these wildfires have raged for millennia. Plus, there’s a limit to what PG&E can do. Many people are calling for them to bury (or “harden”) their power lines. But, as PG&E points out, burying them increases the risk of power being compromised by earthquakes and floods, and the potential cost—hundreds of billions of dollars—is nowhere to be found.

In calling for a Marshall Plan, I mean for the Governor to reassure an anxious public that these fires are no routine matter—that they have now placed themselves at the top of his to-do list. Newsom didn’t run on combating wildfires. I doubt that there’s ever been an American politician who ran for office with disaster prevention his or her main priority. But here we are: politicians need to be flexible, in order to respond to real-world events, and these fires are as real-world as you can get.

Even for those of us well out of the fire zones, who did not lose our power, the air is unacceptable. I took Gus out for his walk early this morning, and as soon as I opened the door, the smell of ashes and soot hit me. It’s very strong, a hostile force to the body: you can feel the mucous membranes tighten, your lungs heave in revolt. I had to immediately turn around and scrounge through my closet for the face mask I used last year, during the Paradise Fire. It helps—not much, but a little, and us senior citizens have to be extra wary of the dire pulmonary effects of breathing in soot.

What will a Marshall Plan look like? I have no idea. But let the Governor reassure us that fire prevention and response has now become a top priority, and let him assemble a task force to come up with approaches. Let this happen quickly; let the task force reach its conclusions quickly—say, by Spring 2020, at the latest, before next year’s fire season is upon us. Let the Governor lead the people, and convince them of its necessity. This shouldn’t be hard; Californians from south of L.A. to the Siskyous, from the Pacific beaches to the Sierra Foothills, are suffering, and thoroughly understand the necessity for dire action.

It will be costly, this Marshall plan—but fighting the fires, and repairing the damage from tens of thousands of destroyed homes and other infrastructure, is probably even costlier. Where will the money come from? Many speak of fining PG&E. This may feel good, emotionally, but it’s not realistic; the company already is in bankruptcy for causing the 2017-2018 fires, and after all, any fines they pay will ultimately come from us, the ratepayers. So where the money will come from is another nut for a task force to crack. If additional taxes are involved, then let the Governor make the intellectual case to taxpayers: he’s smart and eloquent enough to do it.

Bottom line: this just can’t go on. Something has to be done. It’s going to take a concerted effort on the part of all Californians do combat these dreadful fires—a huge, ongoing effort. But we can do it. We’re Californians. Our state motto is EUREKA!—”I have found it.” Let us be the Eureka state, and find the way to mitigate these disasters, before they mitigate us.

  1. Great thoughts and to start the funding Gavin can kick in the $200K he took from PG&E for his election campaign funds…… Trust is hard to earn but easily given away

  2. Bill Tobey says:

    I fully agree we need a Marshall Plan.

    First, get the Sierra Club and related organizations out of setting policy.
    Second, huge emphasis on clearing brush & dead trees must be first.
    Third, where has the Public Utilities Commission been for the past 30 years. Why have they not held power companies accountable? We need to take the power away from the PUC, a group of unelected bureaucrats and give it back to the legislators and governor even though they are doing everything possible to avoid their elected responsibility.
    Four- Four goodness sakes please, please get the local communities involved rather than letting the state make all the decisions.
    Fifth- There is absolutely no reason to raise taxes to do the above, instead change the priorities of the state budget.
    Thanks for listening!

  3. Ultimem Militem says:

    First, there is a point to fining PG&E: forcing the company into chapter 7 rather than chapter 11. Liquidation and recapitalization. Someone out there would love a shot at running public utility properly and safely. Bankrupt PG&E, get rid of management, wipe out shareholders, pay the fines, and make those who were damaged by decades of reckless indifference and wanton neglect whole.

    Then auction assets to interested parties, paying bond holders whatever is left. Allow new owners with new ideas and a fresh example of consequences of failure a chance at building an efficient, responsive, safe, first world utility. What do we have to lose?

  4. Thank you Ultimem Militem (cool name, by the way!). I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of PG&E’s finances, or the best way for them to reorganize. I do know that the most important thing is to keep the power on! We can break PG&E up a million different ways, but if it results in inconsistent power, it’s not good.

  5. sterling albert says:

    I like your thinking

  6. No more Baloney. says:

    Prison labor. Clear 200 yards under every transmission line each side. No trees under lines Cut em to the ground. Don’t care what mouse or bugs are killed. Life sentence? Work em to a early grave. Hard labor cutting mile wide fire breaks. Hand tools only.

    Simple solution complex problems.

  7. Change the rules to allow for larger home solar systems that will Incentivize production and lower costs. Currently, a house cannot have a bigger solar system that it’s estimated annual use. Make it so a homeowner can earn some passive income, increase production and lower costs and clear some brush while they’re at it.

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