Fire Law Incentives

July 22nd, 2021
fire, policy
Pacific Gas & Electric is planning to spend $15-30b to bury power lines. I see why they're doing it: PG&E equipment sparked some of the worst fires in California history, including the 2018 Camp Fire which destroyed Paradise, but I'm not convinced that this is good for California overall.

Historically, the area used to burn periodically. We haven't allowed this for about a century, and flammable materials have been building up. It's all very likely to burn at some point, and burying power lines mostly just reduces the chance that it will be triggered by PG&E. Prescribed burns, spreading out the combustion and moving it to safer times of year, would reduce fire risk far more for the money. Even though when PG&E pays for something the money comes from their customers, CA residents, this isn't a tradeoff PG&E is in a position to consider.

The problem is that CA law puts too much focus on sparks: if you start a fire, you are fully liable for its damage. This approach makes sense in most places, where a "we will never let it burn" policy is practical. In ecosystems adapted for periodic burning, however, where flammable materials build up over time, it means everyone is trying not to be the legally recognized cause of the inevitable fire. And it makes prescribed burns look expensive because when one goes out of control, of which there is always a risk, that puts the fire control organization on the hook for the full costs.

Let's work on a system of laws and policies which lead to minimizing overall fire damage.

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