Ozzy Butler pours water on to his deck at his parents house as the Saddleridge Fire burns along Thunderbird Ave. Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2019 in Porter Ranch, Calif. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES – It could have been another bad wildfire year in California. A bountiful summer crop of quick-to-burn dead grass carpeted the hillsides. Autumn was warm and dry. A record-breaking stretch of fire weather hit the Bay Area in October.

But it wasn’t. California wildfires charred about 270,000 acres in 2019, the smallest number since 2011. The three fatalities and roughly 735 burned structures were a fraction of the catastrophic losses of the previous two fire seasons.

The lower-than-expected toll followed an unusually wet spring and big snowpack, which slowed the start of the fire season. The installation of backcountry fire cameras gave firefighting crews early notice of ignitions. When flames approached, evacuation orders were swift and sweeping.

But most critically, widespread preventive power shutdowns by the state’s largest electric utility diminished the chances of human-related ignitions at critical times – during high, hot winds that can fan a single spark into the kind of unstoppable inferno that destroyed the town of Paradise, Calif., and left 86 people dead in the 2018 Camp fire.

The power blackouts were “likely highly effective in terms of reducing the losses associated with the fire season,” said Stanford University researcher Michael Wara, who served on the state’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery and recently testified before a congressional committee on wildfire and the electric grid.

Pacific Gas & Electric’s inspections of wind damage to its lines and equipment made it clear that, without preventive shutdowns, “we would have had a significant number of utility-caused fires,” Wara added.

The company found more than 300 spots of damage, according to PG&E court filings. Of those, the utility concluded electrical arcing would probably have occurred at 218 locations if power had been flowing through the lines.

The controversial blackouts disrupted the lives of millions of Californians, including Wara, who spent 6{ days without electricity. But the 2019 record suggests that if the state and utilities take more steps to prevent ill-timed ignitions, lives and property will be saved.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. But the widespread shut-offs underscore the huge – and often overlooked – role that human-related ignitions play in California wildfire.

It doesn’t matter how dry the vegetation, how fierce the winds or how high the temperature; if there is no ignition, there is no wildfire.

Outside of the Sierra Nevada and the state’s northernmost tier, there is little lightning, nature’s ignition source.

That means that, in much of California, more than 90% of the wildfires are started by people or their equipment. In coastal counties from Sonoma to San Diego, almost all the starts are human related.

In 2018, the worst wildfire year in the state’s record, 1.8 million acres burned in California. Lightning torched only 117,107 acres, according to federal statistics.

Of the known causes of the state’s 20 most destructive wildfires, all are human-related. Half were started by power line or electrical problems, including the two most devastating, the Camp fire, which incinerated 18,804 buildings, and the 2017 Tubbs fire, which killed 22 people and destroyed 5,636 structures.

Other causes of the top destructive blazes include sparks from driving a trailer on the rim of a flat tire (the 2018 Carr fire in Shasta County); a hunter’s small signal fires (the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County); and arson (the 2003 Old fire in San Bernardino County).

Human starts aren’t just a California problem. Researchers who analyzed two decades of U.S. records found that, from 1992 to 2012, human activity was responsible for 84% of the wildfires and 44% of the area burned nationally.

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