• U.S.
  • California

California’s Power Shutoffs Might Prevent Wildfires. But Are They Worth the Risks?

4 minute read

Hundreds of thousands of Californians went without power this week in yet another planned blackout meant to prevent electrical equipment from sparking a potentially massive and destructive blaze. But as residents wonder if scheduled power outages will be their new normal every fire season, some experts caution that the highly disruptive maneuver may do more harm than good.

The unusual fire prevention strategy comes as the state’s power companies, particularly The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), are desperate to stop their equipment from starting yet another blaze — PG&E equipment caused last year’s Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. The company, facing up to $30 billion in liabilities as a result of that fire, declared bankruptcy in January. That has left it with even fewer resources to properly maintain its equipment (it has reportedly completed only 31% of the the tree-trimming work it planned for this year as of Sept. 21). Longer-term but more expensive fire-prevention measures, like burying power lines underground rather than suspending them through the sky, will take years to implement, if they happen at all. Simply shutting off the power lines, it seems, is easier than keeping them safe.

The widespread shutdowns have turned PG&E into a target for irate Californians, some of whom accuse the company of failing to adequately explain or justify the outages. “I must confess, it is infuriating beyond words to live in a state as innovative and extraordinarily entrepreneurial and capable as the state of California, to be living in an environment where we are seeing this kind of disruption and these kinds of blackouts,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom at a Thursday press conference, joining the growing chorus of frustrated residents. PG&E did not return TIME’s request for comment.

Electrical equipment can start a wildfire in a number of different ways. Power lines may start a blaze if they’re struck with branches, are knocked down, or if they “slap,” or blow around in a way that creates a molten substance that can fall atop dry brush.

But Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara, says turning off the power won’t prevent every wildfire. As he points out, wildfires can be ignited by anything from campfires to lightning to arson. And if a wildfire starts regardless of an outage, blackouts could make it harder for people in potential danger to get information or call for help. “You can’t imagine a worse time to not have power,” Moritz says. Meanwhile, leaving thousands of people without electricity can have its own deadly consequences, especially for people with health issues, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups. And even absent a fire, power outages can present problems of their own — people may miss work, their food or medicine may spoil, and heat becomes a concern without air conditioning.

Still, California and its utility companies are facing a complicated reality. Eric Kennedy, an assistant professor of emergency management at York University, says it’s understandable that PG&E wants to avoid sparking another blaze for legal and business reasons. But he argues that, in the absence of other short-term solutions, there’s a sense that outages could be the best way to save lives, despite the frustrations of Newsom and so many others.

“There is a dimension that is absolutely about the power companies wanting to reduce their own liability,” Kennedy says. “And there is also a dimension that is absolutely about the power companies and their employees earnestly not wanting to kill people, and not wanting to hurt communities. And both of those are incentives at the same time.”

But Moritz says that PG&E is running what he calls a “very large-scale experiment” with little evidence to show that reducing the chances of a fire starting one particular way makes people safer overall. For his part, he would like to see more detailed plans from companies like PG&E regarding the outages, as well as evidence that they do in fact prevent fires. Indeed, a fire began in Sonoma County on Thursday in an area where PG&E said it had already cut power. While it’s unclear what sparked this new blaze, the company says one of its power transmission towers malfunctioned just minutes before the fire began.

“I think we’re missing this larger-scale and longer-term framework for how [shutoffs] fit in to an overall plan,” Moritz says. “Lacking that, it seems like an experiment.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com