California fire investigators have identified the cause of 12 major fires that burned thousands of acres and took the lives of at least 15 people: power lines, not global warming.
CAL FIRE’s findings contradict a major talking point pushed by Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown as fire raged across the state last year. Brown blamed global warming for creating a “new normal” in California regarding wildfires.
“That’s the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture,” Brown said last October. “These kind of catastrophes have happened and they’ll continue to happen, and we have to be prepared to do everything we can to mitigate.”
“The world is not on the road to heaven. It’s on the road to hell,” Brown said in December as more wildfires torched Southern California.
However, CAL FIRE determined “12 Northern California wildfires in the October 2017 Fire Siege were caused by electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles,” according to a recent release.
California saw record-breaking wildfires late last year that reignited the debate over global warming and wildfires, but scientists are hesitant to link fires to global warming. Factors such as vegetation management and past wildfire suppression play a bigger role, experts say.
Wildfires are nothing new in the Golden State. Santa Ana winds that bring warm, dry air in from the east late in the year routinely create the conditions for massive wildfires. Heavy rainfall in early 2017, combined with La Nina conditions later in the year set the scene for wildfires.
Many of the fires were caused by trees hitting power lines, including the Atlas fire in Napa County that killed six people. Investigators determined the 51,624-acre fire stemmed from two locations where trees came into contact with power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).
The 36,523-acre Redwood Fire in Mendocino County was, once again, caused by parts of trees falling into PG&E power lines, according to CAL FIRE. Nine people died in that fire as it destroyed 543 structures. (RELATED: The 2018 Wildfire Season Is On Track To Be As Bad As Last Year’s, US Forest Chief Says)
CAL FIRE referred eight of the 12 fire reports to state prosecutors for review “due to evidence of alleged violations of state law.” PG&E’s stock price fell on CAL FIRE’s findings as the company could face criminal prosecution.
PG&E and other utilities were eager to join Brown in blaming the wildfires on man-made warming as part of a strategy to avoid liability for the blazes.
“Communities across California have been tragically affected as climate change has increased the severity and frequency of wildfires in recent years,” Edison International CEO Pedro Pizarro said in February.
“This is a statewide crisis that needs a statewide solution,” Pizarro added.
Utilities want state lawmakers to pass legislation that would limit their liability in wildfires. Under current law, utilities can be held liable for fire damages if it’s found their equipment played a role in the fire.
PG&E said “years of drought, extreme heat and millions of dead trees had created ‘a new normal’ in California, contributing to more intense wildfires,” Bloomberg reported. “It’s a climate change-fueled situation that requires ‘comprehensive new solutions,’ the company said.”
More investigations are on the way. CAL FIRE said more than 170 fires burned in Northern California last October. The agency is also investigating the December wildfires that plagued Southern California.
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