Stakeholders Assemble to Discuss Bay Area Climate Change

Bay Planning Coalition (BPC) hosted its annual Resources & Infrastructure Expert Briefing at East Bay Municipal Utility District's (EBMUD) Oakland headquarters last month.

California wildfires are increasing in size and severity due to the effects of climate change. Last year’s Camp Fire was the most deadly and destructive in California history.


Published: October, 2019

Bay Planning Coalition (BPC) hosted its annual Resources & Infrastructure Expert Briefing at East Bay Municipal Utility District’s (EBMUD) Oakland headquarters last month. The panel of environmental experts, local policymakers, regulatory agencies and utility company representatives attempted to address the risks posed to Bay Area communities by growing climate-related dangers such as wildfires and heavy storms, and to brainstorm about ways to protect these communities and critical infrastructure moving forward. 

“I think the general sentiment among the panelists was that we’ve passed the point of keeping these climate-related disasters from happening,” said BAPC Policy Director Emily Loper. “That’s the reality. Now we have to put our heads together and figure out how best to mitigate and reduce their impacts.” 

More than 90 people attended the September 17 meeting. That’s the biggest turnout BAPC has ever had. “I think that has a lot to do with all of the national and global attention on this topic,” Loper said. “And some communities not far from us have been hit hard by recent storms and fires in recent years, so it’s on people’s minds. Not only was the room pretty packed; people were very engaged, and lots of good questions were asked.” 

Fire a hot topic 

Next month marks the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire that devastated the foothill town of Paradise, just a few hours’ drive north of the Bay. The fire was the most deadly and destructive in California history, and a May finding that the fire was caused by an increasingly more common perfect storm of high winds, power lines and dry vegetation has people concerned. 

“It’s a real threat,” said BAPC Senior Policy Associate Roman Berenshteyn. “You may say to yourself, ‘Oh that’s happening hundreds of miles from me.’ But the reality is that a disaster like that can impact local utilities, and air and water quality.” One example Berenshteyn gives is the water that EBMUD supplies to parts of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. 

“That water comes from reservoirs as far away as the Sierras, and it gets pumped through areas that have become increasingly fire-prone,” he said. “So EBMUD is exploring ways to change how they operate to be more resilient, including working as fast as possible to replace old infrastructure.”

“As California wildfires increase in frequency, size and severity, the threat to water quality, watershed lands and critical infrastructure grows as well,” said EBMUD Senior Public Information Representative Andrea Pook. 

Pook said that among the lessons learned from the 1991 Oakland firestorm was the need for agencies to coordinate their efforts, and EBMUD now works with other multi-jurisdictional agencies to develop fire safety standards and codes, improve incident response, and educate the public about fire prevention strategies, including clearing vegetation that can fuel a fire.

Proactive or reactive 

A major topic of discussion at the September 17 meeting was whether fire prevention or fire suppression gives the most bang for a community’s buck. Suppression—that is, firefighting—has proven to be the higher priority among members of the general public, who feel more secure knowing that the bodies and equipment necessary to fight a blaze are available and at the ready should one erupt. 

“Prevention is more difficult in some ways,” said Berenshteyn. “One speaker told us that there are more than 150 million dead trees just sitting around as fuel for wildfires. The problem is, it takes two years to remove just one million trees and it’s very expensive, so we can’t just focus on removal. It’s not really feasible.” 

Setting aside money to address the threat of wildfires is a tall order for stakeholders trying to keep budgets balanced. But some policymakers, like State Senator Bob Wieckowski, who represents parts of the East Bay and South Bay, believe there is no choice, given there are 11 million Californians living in areas considered to be at very high risk for wildfires. 

Wieckowski, chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee 2 on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation, allocated $1 billion in the 2019-2020 budget to enhance the state’s capacity to respond to such emergencies. 

The money is allowing the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) to hire 228 more firefighters and emergency responders, as well as purchase more fire engines and air tankers and add more fire detection cameras. 

Wieckowski said, in a January statement: “The state has ramped up resources and funding because as our climate is changing, our policies must change too. Although California has more than 30 million acres of forests, and the state only owns three percent of those, we have no choice but to responsibly combat these wildfire emergencies.” 

Tough lessons 

PG&E says it learned a lot from the Camp Fire, and has stepped up efforts to reduce wildfire risk. For example, the utility has expanded its vegetation management program and is clearing overhanging limbs and branches and hazardous vegetation such as dead or dying trees from around power infrastructure. It’s also meeting state standards for minimum clearances around power lines. PG&E is focusing on high-risk areas right now and hopes to complete the work over the next few years. 

PG&E has also accelerated safety inspections in high-risk areas. As of July 21, 99.99 percent of the nearly 700,000 distribution poles in or adjacent to high-risk areas had been inspected, as had 98.75 percent of the nearly 50,000 transmission structures and 100 percent of the 222 substations.

Whatever balance of prevention and suppression efforts Bay Area stakeholders end up agreeing is the best path forward, time is of the essence, said Michael McMahon, senior hydrometeorologist at HDR, a Los Angeles-based team of scientists and builders that consults with city agencies and developers on building smart infrastructure. 

“Climate change and climate variability are only beginning to impact the Bay Area and surrounding regions,” he said. “The increasing threat of wildfires is a situation that is going to require proactive response through both mitigation and adaptation. The benefit-to-cost of proactive response has shown itself time and again to be a far more robust option that reliance on reactive methodologies.” 

McMahon applauded BAPC for bringing so many of those stakeholders to the table last month. 

“It’s the breeding ground for collaboration and policy development that will make a difference over time.”       

“The next step for BAPC is to continue to work with policymakers to advocate for better solutions to address wildfires and other climate-related risks,” said Berenshteyn. “The state released its fourth climate assessment last fall, and the scientific data points to this problem only getting worse. So as much as the briefing is intended to promote a dialogue about these issues and be informative, I hope it’s also a call to action.”