Fire Law Incentives

post by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-07-22T12:30:01.713Z · LW · GW · 23 comments

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, 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.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2021-07-23T11:07:12.155Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What other people think of me is none of my business.

Unless you want to actually achieve something with your words, I suppose.

comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-07-22T19:58:37.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm open to the idea that thinning is a better choice than burning; that's not the main point of my post. I'm arguing that directing most funding into minimizing sparks is not a good outcome, but happens because our approach to fire liability puts it all on whoever starts it.

comment by johnswentworth · 2021-07-22T12:53:11.259Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Simple "policy" proposal: fire vigilante. Someone (who takes pains to keep their identity secret) goes around lighting fires at places/times where they're likely to be relatively-less-bad - e.g. maybe there's a big rainstorm coming in a couple days which is likely to keep the fire under control. (That's just spitballing, I don't really know what the main determinants are of fire controllability.)

Main advantage of this proposal: can be unilaterally implemented. Requires dealing with zero institutional bullshit, zero broken metaincentives, zero coordination problems, zero politics, etc. Essentially no social points-of-failure; the problems-to-be-solved are entirely physical. That also means it could be implemented by a small team or even an individual. I would give it a dramatically higher chance of success than any political approach.

Replies from: jkaufman, Dagon, AllAmericanBreakfast, Algernoq, ryan_b
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-07-22T15:42:58.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Uh, this is not a call to arson. While lots of the restrictions on prescribed burns are bureaucracy and poorly thought out liability, other pieces are important: coordination with local firefighters so they don't scramble to put it out, good understanding of the weather, plans for if it gets out of control, etc

comment by Dagon · 2021-07-22T17:43:20.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Beautiful.  I love supervillain storylines where I root against the heroes because the writers haven't done the math.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke, antanaclasis
comment by antanaclasis · 2021-07-23T14:12:55.672Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have any recommendations of such stories?

Replies from: Dagon
comment by Dagon · 2021-07-24T00:59:21.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Watchmen was pretty good on this front.  Worm ( is LONG, but great.

comment by Algernoq · 2021-07-23T04:34:33.584Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It occurs to me that if PG&E were evil, it might decide that it's cheaper to secretly hire 'fire vigilantes' to start fires which PG&E is not responsible for, than to bury the cables.

Replies from: BlueSun
comment by BlueSun · 2021-08-02T20:42:44.614Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Typically, as long as the expense is deemed prudent by regulators, utilities are permitted to 'rate base' the expense and earn a return on investment. If PG&E think it's politically possible to increase expenses by $20-30B because there's a good narrative to offset complaints of rising utility prices, it's the selfish thing to do. The times that require strict scrutiny for investor-owned utilities is when they jump on the bandwagon of a politically popular spending proposal (wise infrastructure investments comes from experts getting the politicians on board, not politicians getting the experts on board).

comment by ryan_b · 2021-07-23T17:27:41.605Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does it count for this purpose when the fire vigilante is actually a fireman who just wants the overtime? It is physically the same, but there are broken incentives at work.

comment by technicalities · 2021-07-22T20:16:37.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is an interesting counterpoint (though I'd like to see a model of CO2 cost vs thinning cost if you have one), and it's funny we happen to have such a qualified person on the thread. But your manner is needlessly condescending and - around here - brandishing credentials as a club will seriously undermine you rather than buttressing you. 

comment by theme_arrow · 2021-07-22T16:28:47.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I broadly agree with your point here about controlled burning, but I have two comments that I think add worthwhile context to the issue.

First, PG&E has an extremely poor track record when it comes to maintenance on transmission lines. Even with more controlled burning, it's not a good idea to be shooting off sparks in the middle of the dry season. So an optimal balance probably involves both PG&E spending more money on its infrastructure and doing more controlled burning. 

Second, a lot of the deaths and injuries related to fires are the result of California's housing crisis pushing more people into urban-wilderness boundary areas. As development pushes out into more areas of chaparral (which as the Pew article you linked noted, consists of fast-growing shrubs that like to burn and can't really be cleared out over the long-run by controlled burning), you're pretty much guaranteed to have more damage from fire. Removing barriers to housing construction in existing urban areas is a key piece of the puzzle in protecting people from fire. 

comment by Jackson Wagner · 2021-07-23T01:19:54.205Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The best resource I've found on this topic is a comprehensive investigation into both the nature of the problem and a list of potential solutions, by rationalist blog Nintil:

  • How many acres burn every year? Is it getting worse?
  • Is this data valid?
  • The role of climate change
  • Vapor Pressure Deficit
  • The historical fire record
  • Why do the fires start?
  • Natural fires matter: health costs
  • The WUI conundrum
  • Plot time!
  • Who is in charge where?
  • Trends elsewhere. Is it getting worse in general?
  • Fire suppression, fire exclusion and prescribed fire
  • The firefighting trap
  • Were Native Americans doing it?
  • So is it fire exclusion or climate change?
  • Conclusion

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-07-23T02:25:24.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

CA has $50 million in its budget for prescribed burns, and the problem is that it's not safe to do them in all areas. Sounds like it's the future of fire control, though. Source

comment by Viliam · 2021-07-22T20:21:27.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What exactly is the greatest problem of the fire? Is it random people walking in the forest, caught by surprise by a quickly spreading fire? Or is it houses and other things that cannot be moved out of the way of fire, even if you get a warning in advance?

For houses, the solution would be to require an inflammable area of certain size around each settlement. (That is, not around each house individually; you can also surround the entire village.)

For people in the forest, some combination of a warning system (loud alarms in case of fire) and shelters to hide that are easy to find.

It might make sense to cut a few inflammable lines across the forest, so that it doesn't burn all at once.

Replies from: gerald-monroe, Richard_Kennaway
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-07-23T20:56:43.676Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right. The first step to a real solution would be to sector the forest into zones separated by a firebreak. Then schedule each zone for a burn every (time interval).

However, cutting such barriers into a forest could island certain species and cause their extinction via genetic drift and diversity loss. (Essentially each isolated population has a high probability of losing genetic diversity each generation and so eventually the whole population will become fragile and will die out)

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2021-07-24T12:04:44.465Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then the solution could be to surround the entire forest by one firebreak, or perhaps for extra security make it two concentric ones with a narrow belt between them.

A creative (i.e. crazy, and probably not working in real life) solution could be to make the firebreak a spiral, so that technically the whole forest remains connected and the fire still spreads everywhere, but it spreads slowly, because it has to go in circles. People caught in the burning forest might even get a chance to outrun the fire. On a second thought, the same would be true for many animals.

Anyway, the problem in real life is that sooner or later someone will somehow build a house in the forest, no matter the law. It's just a question of time. Then more people will join, and then they will all cry on camera when their houses start burning. -- So you need strict law enforcement, where all houses found built in the forbidden zone are destroyed immediately.

(There is a somewhat similar situation in Slovakia, than once in a few years there is a flood around the Danube river. The banks of the river are reinforced at some places, and at other places there are locations where it is forbidden to build houses. But of course, during the years between the floods, there are always many houses built in the forbidden places, either illegally, or someone influential somehow gets an exception... and then, quite predictably, once in a while we get an exceptionally large flood, and people are crying about their homes being destroyed.)

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-07-22T21:18:46.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe you mean "non-flammable". "Inflammable" means the same as "flammable", the "in-" here being not a negative prefix but having causative meaning, as in "inflame". "Flammable" was coined to avoid the confusion about what "inflammable" means.

comment by Zolmeister · 2021-07-22T20:12:35.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hold land-owners liable for fire-damage caused to their abutting neighbors.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-07-23T00:57:33.754Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this idea, but I think it's still unreasonably disadvantages prescribed burns?

Replies from: Zolmeister
comment by Zolmeister · 2021-07-23T19:13:32.340Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it balances prescribed burns with other methods of fire-suppression (fire-breaks, thinning), and incentivizes local coordination among neighbors.