California Burning Down—Lightning Sieges, Wildfires & Air Quality

Last week I woke up to a brilliant light show over Silicon Valley. A heatwave in California and moisture from a tropical storm off the coast of Mexico triggered the most intense dry lightning activity ever seen. Over 53,000 lightning strikes and 350 wildfires in three-and-a-half days. What experts are calling a “lightning siege.” The wildfire smoke made California’s air quality worse than any other place in the world. This time convicted corporate felon Pacific Gas & Electric wasn’t responsible for burning down the state. Just another crazy week in California.

Lightning Siege

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, summers in Silicon Valley were always hot: eighties, nineties, and occasionally 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The summer heat caused the tomato fields to blossom with yellow flowers that became bright red fruits. My grandfather would stir fry tomato hornworms for lunch. He also ate cow brains for dinner before mad cow disease became a thing. No wonder my parents discouraged me from becoming a farmer like him.

The summers ever since then have gotten much cooler. I gave up growing tomatoes on my balcony because the yellow flowers would blossom and then fall off from the lack of summer heat. Without any fruit on the plants, tomato hornworms didn’t bother to show up. That saved me the trouble of drowning the buggers in a bucket of water.

A heatwave in Silicon Valley is almost always an extreme weather event. Such as it was with 100 degrees Fahrenheit days for the past week.

If that wasn’t bad enough, another extreme weather event took place on top of that. Moisture from a tropical storm off the coast of Mexico came roaring over California at 10,000 feet to mingle with the hot air on the ground. That combination triggered the formation of thunderstorms and dry lightning. Due to the intensity of the lightning strikes in a short period of time, experts are calling it a “lightning siege.”

All those lightning strikes sparked hundreds of wildfires throughout the state.

Wildfires

Silicon Valley was largely unaffected by the wildfires on either side of the valley. The wildfire in the eastern foothills caused an evacuation of several hundred people surrounding the Lick Observatory at Mount Hamilton. The wildfire in the western foothills caused 77,000 people to evacuate in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. Those wildfires are burning freely since there isn’t enough firefighters to contain all the blazes throughout the state.

Why?

The coronavirus pandemic sidelined the 3,500 inmate firefighters that join the 12,000 seasonal firefighters on the front lines. Prison administrators granted releases to hundreds of prisoners to relieve overcrowding in prisons. Fire camps are under lockdown because someone got the coronavirus. The governor plans to hire an additional 800 seasonal firefighters to make up for the missing inmate firefighters. Each one of them will have to do the job of five firefighters.

Wildfire smoke and ashes falling from the sky was a different story. What looked like overcast clouds and fog in the distance was a thick layer of wildfire smoke. The prevalent burnt wood smell is everywhere and almost impossible to escape from. When I was at Target to get some groceries, a man with a water bucket and squeegee offered to wash off the ashes from car windshields for five bucks. The water in his bucket was quite dirty.

Pacific Gas & Electric

Pacific Gas & Electric has a reputation for periodically burning down California.

  • The Camp Fire wildfire that killed 85 people in 2018
  • The Northern California wildfires that killed 44 people in 2017
  • The Butte Fire that killed two people in 2015.

Transmission lines located in the middle of nowhere tend to spark and light up dried vegetation in extreme heat. It didn’t help that management diverted funding for tree trimming to the shareholders and then asked taxpayers to pay again. When it wasn’t burning down the state, PG&E blew up a San Bruno neighborhood that killed eight people in 2010.

So far, PG&E is off the hook for this year’s wildfire.

California is having rolling blackouts for the first time in 20 years. Back then it was Enron manipulating the newly deregulated electric market in its favor at the expense of everyone else. Today, the situation was a bit more complicated. On paper there should be enough generation supply and transmission capacity to deliver power.

PG&E, being the largest utility in California, had to blackout areas to reduce strain on the system. Most people are unhappy about being without power during 100-degree Fahrenheit weather. No surprise that everyone hates PG&E.


The worse for California is not yet over. More thunderstorms with dry lightning and high temperatures are in the forecast.

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