California’s wildfires illuminate the importance of climate resilience

A few weeks ago, Pacific Gas & Energy cut power to about 800,000 customers in northern California in an attempt to prevent wildfires from sparking. The mass outage was intended to stop trees from crashing into Pacific Gas & Energy lines when dry winds blew in after months without considerable rainfall in the area. While the power was out, PG&E had to inspect all of the power lines included in the outage and fix any damage that was found. Some California residents were without electricity for up to three days over 34 counties. This widespread blackout was the largest ever in the state’s history.

The unfortunate reality is that planned power outages like this are projected to become the new normal as regions all over California continue to experience windy conditions, low humidity, and hot temperatures. NPR reported that California residents can expect to experience intermittent blackouts for the next 10 years due to the increasing chance of wildfires in the state.

But there’s more to this story. As of last week, a 600-acre wildfire is burning across west Los Angeles. The Getty fire has already destroyed eight residences and threatens thousands of others. And there are multiple other wildfires currently ablaze in California – including one in Sonoma County, the epicenter of the state’s wine industry. Although California officially emerged from a drought for the first time in eight years back in March, wildfires are continuing to occur all over the state this fall.

California’s recent fires have increased pressure on utility companies to boost resiliency on the West Coast. As proactive blackouts are adopted by utility companies as a preventive measure against wildfires in the west, storms are becoming more intense and the sea level continues to rise. It’s safe to say that climate change adaption and resilience in our communities is now more important than ever.

What is resilience?

“Resilience” refers to a community’s capacity to bounce back quickly from any natural or manmade shock. Resiliency means having a system in place that can act independently from the utility, or a microgrid, in the event of a major event, like a wildfire. The question is, how do we make our energy systems flexible enough to handle challenges brought on by climate change?

Community solutions

Making relatively incremental changes can help reduce the overall stress put on local power grids in areas with large populations. Some communities have begun to take on projects that will help them become more energy resilient as the effects of climate change continue to become more real.

Examples include:

  • Microgrids that combine on-site generation technologies, like solar panels or thermal engines with energy storage
  • Utility energy efficiency programs, including building energy-efficient homes and offices and deploying combined heat and power programs
  • Pre-emergency planning to address and mitigate vulnerabilities across municipal departments and business sectors

E & E’s resiliency work

E & E has a long history of climate resiliency work. Our projects throughout the U.S. range from climate vulnerability and risk assessments to the development of sea-level rise adaptation planning toolkits and more. By bringing together experts in ecology, landscape design, infrastructure, community resilience, information technology, and public outreach, we can help governments and businesses address complex scenarios associated with climate change.

Here’s an overview of several of our climate resiliency projects.

Larimer County, Colorado Resiliency Framework

In 2018, E & E assisted Larimer County officials when they embarked on a countywide plan to create a resiliency framework for the area after experiencing a major wildfire and other catastrophic weather events in a short period of time. Our team developed five priority projects that addressed:

  • Gaps in resiliency education within the community
  • Availability of healthcare to remote communities
  • Availability of affordable housing and linked public transportation
  • Strengthening of critical access roads
  • Design criteria for low-impact development and green infrastructure within critical watersheds

E & E also created a custom web-based mapping tool for Larimer County called Cascarta that allows emergency managers, land use planners and communities to assess the potential effects of a disaster on a community’s infrastructure. This bespoke tool aids in emergency and resiliency planning by showing the resiliency of a built environment.

climate resilience, Cascarta
A public meeting for E & E’s Colorado Resiliency project.

New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program (NYRCRP)

Following the passage of the Disaster Recovery Act of 2013 after Superstorm Sandy, E & E was selected to develop five resiliency plans for 14 communities in New York State. We worked with local communities to gather input and identify strategies, programs and actions to promote quick and efficient community recovery after damage was caused by Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Strom Lee. The flood resiliency and community reconstruction planning projects that E & E worked on for this program were awarded a NY Rising to the Top award by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo for “Best Infrastructure Investments with Co-Benefits” and “Best Use of Technology in the Planning Process.” These awards provided each community with up to $3 million in additional project funding.

Citywide Asset and Logistics Management System (CALMS)

For the New York City Emergency Management Department, E & E designed a comprehensive customized online resource management system called CALMS. This system is designed to support NYC’s Citywide Logistics Guide, an endeavor to standardize management of assets during response and recovery operations should a natural disaster arise in the U.S.’s most densely populated city. It inventories assets such as facilities, fleet, personnel, and equipment and supplies at the city, regional, state, federal, and private levels.

Click through to see E & E’s resiliency work throughout the United States

Additionally, E & E has provided support on fifteen California Public Utilities Commission projects since 2007. Our work has included comprehensive environmental impact assessment, compliance monitoring, environmental review, public meeting support, and in some cases, biological monitoring.

We have also done extensive climate change adaptation work with San Mateo County in California. With a shoreline along both the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, the county is directly faced with the realities of sea-level rise and wildfires for its 700,000+ residents. E & E is currently spearheading the Climate Ready San Mateo County initiative, which will help the residents of San Mateo County better understand and prepare for climate-related risks from wildfires, heat, and severe storm events. And this past summer, our Portland-based resilient communities team began work with the Pit River Tribe in northern California. We will be supporting the tribe as they develop their first Hazard Mitigation Plan and Emergency Operations Plan.

E & E is a founding corporate sponsor of the International Sea Level Institute, which educates the public about the dangers of sea-level rise and the need to adapt. Climate adaptation is a major cornerstone of our business, and we strive to be leaders in addressing our shared climate challenges.

E & E’s resiliency services include:

  • Vulnerability and risk assessments
  • Emergency response, preparedness, and recovery plans
  • Climate and sea-level rise adaptation planning
  • Nature-based restoration planning and design; shoreline restoration
  • Coastal zone consistency evaluations
  • GIS-based data management and mapping
  • Community outreach, stakeholder engagement, and tribal consultation
  • Environmental monitoring and compliance during construction and mitigation
climate resilience
Photo credit: Pixabay

Wrap up

As California ramps up efforts to combat climate change, a reliable grid and solid emergency response plans are more important than ever for the most populous state in the country. Still, more power outages are expected across the state as winds return, according to the Los Angeles Times. Climate change is one of the most multifaceted issues facing us today – and cities and municipalities are on the frontline of climate adaptation. E & E understands that addressing and adapting to climate change and its effects should be a priority, and our wide array of experience allows us to address climate adaptation needs holistically.

Contact us today to learn more about our climate resiliency capabilities.

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