Raging wildfires and major power shutoffs: Big tests in Calif. raise questions for the rest of us

gettyfirelafd2019-300x218California’s raging wildfires may seem a far coast away, and this seasonal calamity attracts little attention among policy makers in official Washington. But the fires are sending sharp warnings that the rest of the nation might well heed.

The disasters have uprooted hundreds of thousands, destroyed dozens of homes and other buildings, and led to shutoffs of a basic service — electricity — to huge swaths of the nation’s most populous state. They also raise serious issues to anyone who is concerned about the:

The first-responders, including those not only from the Golden State but also those pouring in from across the country and the globe, deserve the highest salute for their heroic efforts in jaw-dropping conditions, with steep terrain, whipping winds, and flames soaring stories high into the sky. Medical personnel have performed admirably, too, not only tending to their regular duties but also handling high-stress situations in evacuating vulnerable patients.

Emergency strategists up and down California deserve kudos, too, for learning from past outbreaks and attacking the latest wildfires with as many resources as could be mustered. This early round of winds and fires developed with a different pace than some previous episodes, giving fleeing residents and firefighters a better chance to dig in and battle back. There may be second-guessing in the days ahead about the extent to which officials ordered evacuations and deployed resources to quell situations and keep ahead of incidents. For now, this has meant no deaths due to dozens of blazes, and at least eight days of fright that haven’t turned out for the worst.

California’s public utilities and their regulators, on the other hand, have taken a torrent of deserved shame for their past and present roles in fueling the wildfire nightmares. Taxpayers in the state are learning all too well that politicians and regulators looked the other way as those who headed the giant power providers plundered for profits, while ignoring the public’s safety and crucial investments in infrastructure and basic maintenance.

After fire investigators have tied flawed electric firms’ equipment to some of California’s biggest and deadliest wildfires, the utilities decided their “best” response would be to shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers during hot, gusty times.

That has created chaos for homeowners, businesses, schools — and, of course, for doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals. It has forced the elderly to seek shelter outside of their hot and dark homes. For those who rely on electric-powered medical devices, the power shutoffs have caused a new and unanticipated ned. By the way, what happens to all the high-tech emergency warning systems that officials have promoted for the public’s benefit? They may not be worth more than a dead cell phone, especially in the middle of the night. There’s a big hint from the West Coast: Get to know your neighbors, because they may provide a lifesaving knock on your door in an emergency.

The wildfires also have cast an unpleasant light on gaping economic inequities that exist in the United States now, meaning that the working poor, in particular, may put their personal safety and their health at risk because they need to show up for their jobs, even if their bosses don’t call them or forget to let them know their duties were canceled.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patient suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of therapies and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs. The profiteering by doctors, big hospitals, insurers, and Big Pharma is symptomatic, perhaps, of a sad, too common me-first approach that is laid bare — or beaten down — in the worst of times. They, alas, also are becoming too common, especially due to climate change, so the nation in recent times seems to be perpetually wracked by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.

As hard circumstances try people’s souls, they may wish to think ahead, too, about those the democracy puts and keeps in power, whether in government or corporate life. President Trump, in tantrums of self-pity and self-absorption, has said little helpful about the current California wildfires. He has compared the Golden State to Nordic nations, arguing, counter factually, that state officials have failed to properly rake forest floors to prevent catastrophic fires. That’s not made up. Neither is the administration’s destructive environmental and health records.

We’ve had lots of political chatter in Washington, D.C., about Americans taking responsibility for their own lives, especially in paying for the health and well-being they can afford on their own. But when the world’s on fire or we’re drowning in storm-related inundations, we remember we’re all in this together. It’s our collective virtue that keeps the power on, the roads clear, the hospitals open, and our schools and neighborhoods safe and secure. We need to remember this as the 2020 elections bear down on us.

Photo credit: City of Los Angeles Fire Department
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