11 months ago

The City of Demopolis lights path for Black Belt economic revival

DEMOPOLIS – Most people know the hardships of Alabama’s Black Belt — poverty, declining populations, lack of access to quality education and health care.

However, in northern Marengo County, one city has defied the worst of these trends.

Located on the bank of Tombigbee River, near its fork with the Black Warrior River, is the 200-year-old city of Demopolis. French colonists founded the Demopolis, a term for “The People’s City,” in 1817 and over time it was settled by other Europeans and American planters from the East Coast.

Initially, as Alabama developed from the south up, Demopolis was the last stop on the river before the advent of the lock and dam system.

Old Coca-Cola Mural, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

Over time, the city benefitted from the various boom and bust cycles of agribusiness – cotton, cattle and catfish. Warehouses on the banks of the Tombigbee River attracted riverboat traffic. Later came the pulp and paper industry, lumber and timber, and cement made possible by the chalk in the soil.

Demopolis is a fair distance away from the hustle and bustle of Alabama’s metropolitan areas. Despite being connected by a four-laned U.S. Highway 80 and 20 minutes from Interstate 20/59, Demopolis is an hour-and-45-minute drive from Birmingham and Montgomery, and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Mobile.

However, for those unfamiliar with Demopolis, it is one of the bright spots in the beleaguered Black Belt.

Education and Workforce Development

Demopolis Mayor John Laney sees his city’s model as a way to cure the region’s woes, which he argues requires regional cooperation.

“I think for the Black Belt itself, in this part of Alabama, to be successful, it won’t be any one area,” Laney said in an interview with Yellowhammer News. “It has to be all of us working together for the success of each other. I think Demopolis can be a very strong part of that team and I think we are doing things as a community to help improve and gain momentum towards that improvement.”

As an example of this cooperation, Laney highlighted growth in the Demopolis Higher Education Center, a dual-enrollment facility comprised of high school students and continuing education for adults from around Marengo County.

“You ask yourself, well how did that occur?” he said. “It occurred because people work together – that being the Alabama Community College System has taken an interest in the Black Belt, that being the vice-chancellor, Jeff Lynn, and the chancellor, Mr. Jimmy Baker, and Shelton State.”

John C. Webb Home, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

“Those two entities have come in and are actively working to increase educational opportunities, not only for high school students, so that they’re work-ready when they come out of high school,” Laney continued. “But ultimately the goal is to have both programs in place for unemployed people as they want to gain the skills to participate in the workforce, as well as underemployed people that want to improve their level in the workforce.”

According to the Demopolis mayor, the success is all about team effort.

“It’s not any one thing. It’s everybody doing a little bit to where the total effort is greater than anything any one person is doing,” he said.

Laney argued that workforce development is “critical.”

“The number one thing, in my opinion, is that you have a labor force or demonstrated that you can train a labor force in an area that a company is looking to locate,” he said. “And if you don’t have that capability, or demonstrate that you have that capability, you’re not going to get a second look. You probably won’t get a first look.”

Demopolis Theater District (J.Poor/YHN)

Internet-readiness, Proximity to Interstates and Airports Highlight Infrastructure Offerings

Demopolis has three nearby industrial parks – one on its south side, another near its airport and one in the city of Linden, the county seat of Marengo County, approximately 17 miles away. According to Laney, all three parks have the “AT&T Fiber-ready” designation.

“We have two companies just in the last 12 months that have … relocated its corporate headquarters from an area that did not have good internet communication to Demopolis because of high-speed internet connection because their business takes them all over the Southeast,” Laney explained.

He added, “We have another company that was located just outside of our city limits that relocated their corporate office to inside our city limits, again, to get access to that high-speed internet because their operations literally go throughout the United States. It’s hard for a business to function today without that access to high-speed internet access.”

Rosenbush Furniture Company Building (now the Marengo County History and Archive Museum) (J.Poor/YHN)

Demopolis is located on the U.S. Highway 80, a major east-west thoroughfare, which over the last decade-and-a-half has been fully four-laned from Interstate 65 near Montgomery to Interstates 20/59 near the Alabama-Mississippi state line.

“Having that four-lane access has made a big difference if you’re going from here south,” Laney said. “Again, if you’re going from here to Montgomery, having that four-lane access has made a big difference because it cuts down that travel time.”

Laney also touted Demopolis’ access to four commercial airports within a two-hour radius of his city: Meridian, Miss., Montgomery, Birmingham and Jackson, Miss.

“From here you have got a lot of flexibility as to where you choose to fly out of,” he said.

Overcoming the Rural Hospital Crisis

For much of rural Alabama, the loss of population has led to the loss of health care options, primarily hospitals. However, in early 2018, Demopolis’ Bryan W. Whitfield Hospital partnered with the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) Health Systems.

“They’re beginning to show their benefit because they’ve just been instituted in the last four months,” Laney said. “But having that partnership with UAB is a key to helping our hospital turnaround because our hospital is a regional hospital, not a Demopolis hospital.”

As Laney explained, the hospital serves more than just the immediate area. Now it serves the entire west central Alabama portion of the Black Belt, making it a “regional health care center.”

Demopolis Public Square (J.Poor/YHN)

Downtown Revitalization Through Ordinance Enforcement

For new visitors to Demopolis, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is the abundance of historic structures. There’s no shortage of Greek revival antebellum homes, brick walls with murals advertising products of another era and a theater district that once showcased the talents of 1920s silent screen star Henry B. Walthall, boxer Jack Dempsey and escape artist Harry Houdini.

Laney credits a revitalization effort underway in his city’s downtown to the enforcement of dilapidated property ordinances already on the books in Demopolis.

“It’s interesting because, for years, we’ve had ordinances on the books,” he said. “But we are now actively enforcing our ordinances. Two things we have going are first, our dilapidated housing program and in the last two years, we’ve taken down 20 dilapidated properties throughout the city to improve the quality of life throughout the neighborhoods.”

Rooster Hall, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

The other ordinances, Laney pointed to, are the “maintenance ordinances.”

“If you had come to this city six months ago, you would see vines growing down the side of buildings, trees growing out of gutters, windows broken,” he said. “But by taking advantage of those ordinances, we have started to make a turn there so that when potential investors come to our city, they are seeing fewer and fewer buildings that are rundown. They are being maintained properly to hopefully make for a more attractive place that someone would be willing to invest their money.”

Recently, Demopolis’ downtown has had a rebirth with the opening of a new jewelry store, clothing stores and two restaurants.

If You Create Jobs, Other Quality-of-Life Amenities Will Come

For Laney, his primary objectives are not to bring in big-box retailers or any other types of commercial business, but instead to increase employment so that ultimately there is more disposable income for such pursuits.

“[W]e can talk about movie theaters,” he said. “I’ve talked to the people that own the movie theaters in Tuscaloosa. We can talk about bowling alleys. I mean, we can talk about more restaurants. But until you get disposable income, you talk, and you talk, and you talk.”

“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create the infrastructure to attract businesses to create the jobs so that we will create the disposable income that will attract those other businesses,” Laney explained. “That’s the key to our success.”

Laney credited the Marengo Economic Development Authority, which has been successful in securing federal U.S. Department of Agriculture grant money for the Demopolis Hickory Mill, the maker of drumstick billets and ax handles.

Demopolis-based Robertson Banking Company Building (J.Poor/YHN)

Another promising effort Laney touted was the agency’s successful effort to lure Superior Inland Terminals to Demopolis and re-establish it as a riverport, which would give Demopolis the opportunity to capitalize on being on the Tenn-Tom Waterway System.

Presently, the recently launched operation is focusing on aggregates, unloading/loading of coal and wood pellets hauled from Selma to Demopolis by truck and then bound for the port of Mobile by boat.

In August, Demopolis will host the Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken 14-Year-Old World Series.

“That will be out at our Sportsplex,” Laney said. “The Sportsplex is in good condition as it is, but we’re investing in it over the next several months to raise it to that world series quality so that people coming in from different places in the United States to participate in this event will feel like they’re coming to a special place.”

Gaineswood, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

A Plea to the Alabama Department of Commerce

The leaders of economically struggling regions often complain that the State of Alabama government has put too much of a focus on the bigger cities while neglecting rural areas.

Laney told Yellowhammer News that is no different for the Black Belt.

“Jobs are the key to the success of the Black Belt,” he said. “One of the concerns that I’ve had as mayor is that I’ve watched, looked at things on a statewide basis – you see a lot of focus on the Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

Trinity Episcopal Church (established 1834) (J.Poor/YHN)

Laney argues that the Department of Commerce should revisit their incentive programs to encourage companies to locate in rural Alabama counties. According to Laney, as the state attracts more business to metropolitan areas, jobs become more concentrated in the cities, and more people abandon rural counties to take those jobs.

He noted that as people depart rural areas, it impacts hospitals, which lose their patient base; and it impacts the local skilled workforce, which is the lifeblood of economic development.

“I think the overall health of the state would be far, far better if there was more focus towards incentivizing companies to not only locate in the MSAs but also the rural counties,” Laney added. “I’m not talking about just the Black Belt, but I think this would be a general statement for all the rural counties in the state of Alabama. I think that seriously needs to be revisited.”

The Rivers as a Natural Resource

While Demopolis attempts to improve its standing as a riverport, currently the main benefit of proximity to the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers has been industrial.

“Being on a river – where it has helped Demopolis more than any other activity is it is a very good source of water for these big mills.”

Overlooking the Tombigbee River, west of downtown Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

He cited the nearby Alabama Power Greene County steam plant and other mills operated by Georgia-Pacific and Westrock.

“As far as being a river port, that’s what we’re trying to develop, and that’s where Superior Inland Terminals we view as being the beginning of that,” Laney outlined.

Still Reaping the Benefits Cooperative Integration

Demopolis is known for how it avoided much of the strife that took place throughout Alabama, including in the nearby city of Selma, during the Civil Rights Era. Locals take pride in that, and to this day, Demopolis City Schools continue to benefit.

“Back in the ‘60s, during the period of integration, Demopolis city leaders – black and white – were faced with a decision, and that decision was do we let the federal government tell us how to integrate, or do we do it ourselves and try to do everything we can to help our public school systems survive?” Laney explained. “City leaders came together, put together our own integration plan, took it to Washington to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice approved the integration plan.

Confederate Monument on Main Avenue at Capitol Street (J.Poor/YHN)

“And we have, without a doubt, one of the best public school system you’ll find in the state of Alabama,” he continued. “The private school systems in this area have been relatively weak because of our strong public school system. One-third of our student body comes from outside of our city limits.”

“It’s because we, meaning all the citizens of Demopolis, work together for the success of this city,” Laney added.

The Closing Sales Pitch

When asked to give a closing argument as to why someone should consider Demopolis over other options, Laney highlighted all the quality-of-life amenities already in place and the low cost of living. That, he argued, makes his city a place not only to open a business and raise a family but also to retire someday.

“We are an ideal community for small-to-midsize businesses,” he said. “We have a ready-and-able workforce. We’ve got great schools. We’ve got a great hospital. And we have a good quality of life.”

“We’re an ideal location for a retirement community because of our cost of living is very reasonable compared to a lot of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” Laney added. “Again that goes back to our medical facilities. If you’re a retired person looking for a quality place to live with good medical care, we definitely should be on your list of places to consider.”

Bluff Hall, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

History backs up the claim, as evidenced by the number of well-maintained historic structures, Laney said.

“Demopolis is a historical city,” he said. “We’ve got Gaineswood. We’ve got Bluff Hall. We’ve got Lyon Hall. We’re open for business every day with regard to historical tours.”

“One of the things that makes Demopolis so vibrant is the interest that people take in our city in general,” Laney added. “This city doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because you have a lot of people who love this city and care for this city.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

3 hours ago

Huntsville Police officer shot, killed in the line of duty — Sixth Alabama LEO slain this year

A 20-year veteran Huntsville Police Department officer on Friday evening was shot and killed in the line of duty.

The officer’s name is expected to be released on Saturday. The suspect, whose name also has yet to be released, is in custody.

Huntsville PD Chief Mark McMurray during a press conference confirmed the officer’s death, outlining that the officer was shot in the heart during a drug-related task force operation and later was pronounced dead at an area hospital. The officer was reportedly wearing a bullet proof vest when the shooting occurred.

Following Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams’ death most recently, this Huntsville officer becomes the sixth Alabama law enforcement officer slain in the line of duty in 2019.

U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town of the Northern District of Alabama released a statement, saying, “All of Alabama is heartbroken again as another Alabama peace officer is gunned down in the line of duty.”

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“The Huntsville Police Department investigator, whose name will be released tomorrow, will always be remembered as a good man and a fine officer. Those of us who knew him admired his dedication and professionalism. We must now direct our prayers to his grieving family and pull together in full support of the Huntsville Police Department and law enforcement everywhere who lost another brother of the badge tonight. I am beyond grief,” Town concluded.

Governor Kay Ivey also released a statement.

“I am grieved to hear of the Huntsville Police Officer killed in the line of duty and extend my deepest sympathies and prayers to his family for their unimaginable loss,” the governor stated. “It has been an exceptionally tough year for our law enforcement community, and this will be felt across our state.”

“I will also be praying for strength for the Huntsville Police as they grieve the loss of their fellow officer, as well as for their continued protection as they keep us safe. May the Lord’s peace that passes all understanding be with the family and everyone who loved this dedicated officer,” Ivey added.

Oxford Police Department Chief Bill Partridge, who is president of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police, tweeted, “It seems the attack on our brothers and sisters of law enforcement continues. We have lost another officer tonight to gunfire. Please keep the Huntsville Police Department and the family of the fallen officer in your prayers. This assault must stop!”

In addition to the Huntsville PD officer and Sheriff Williams, Tuscaloosa Police Department Investigator Dornell Cousette, Mobile Police Department Officer Sean Tuder, Auburn Police Department Officer William Buechner and Birmingham Police Sergeant Wytasha Carter have been shot and killed in the line of duty this year.

State Rep. Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville), a former police chief in the city, posted a powerful tribute about the unmanned officer on Facebook.

“He always wanted to be in drug enforcement, that’s all he talked about as a young officer. He worked the streets diligently until he got his dream assignment,” Reynolds wrote. “Now he is the victim of a murder, killed trying to make our community safer. There are mean evil people in this world that have no respect for human life.”

“I pray for his family, our officers, our Chief that tried to provide comfort in the worst of times, and I pray for the families and the officers that graduated the police academy this morning,” he concluded. “There is no reasoning. Bad day for the good guys.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle stated, “Our City is broken hearted tonight.”

“All of Huntsville mourns along with the Huntsville Police Department and the family and friends of our fallen officer. We owe a continual and deep debt of gratitude to the men and women in law enforcement who protect our community every day. Let it never be taken for granted the sacrifice that officers make to keep us safe,” the mayor continued.

Battle advised, “We stand side by side with our police department and in the days, weeks and months ahead – have no doubt – we will use the full extent of the law to bring the perpetrator to justice.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

Ivey lights official Alabama Christmas Tree

MONTGOMERY — Governor Kay Ivey, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, Air Force General James B. Hecker, a children’s choir and several hundred of their fellow Alabamians gathered on the capitol steps Friday evening to light Alabama’s official 2019 Christmas tree.

The tree, standing 34-ft tall, was decorated with tens of thousands of lights as well as special ornaments marking Alabama’s bicentennial.

“Christmas is a direct reminder of the hope we find in Christ,” Ivey said in her remarks.

Caroline Blades, age 4, talked to Yellowhammer after the event. She agreed with her dad that the tree was “really pretty’ and that it “was cool to see other kids up there.”

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At the event, Ivey made sure to remember the Americans serving in the armed forces, saying, “[T]his time of year it’s important to remember the brave men and women, away from home, protecting us.”

Lieutenant General James B. Hecker, commander and president, Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, followed the governor in speaking. He said, “There is not a state in the country that welcomes their military members like Alabama.”

Watch the lighting here or below:

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

7 hours ago

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson: No plans to seek higher office beyond Mobile Mayor

MOBILE — Whenever there is an opening for a high-profile statewide office, one of the names always mentioned as a potential candidate for that office is Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

As of late, the city of Mobile has had a good run under Stimpson’s leadership with the growth of Austal USA and Airbus Mobile while Stimpson has won two mayoral elections in Alabama’s port city. Those are the hallmarks of a potential political up-and-comer and make Stimpson a viable candidate for higher office in the eyes of some political watchers.

However, Stimpson says not to expect him to throw his hat into the ring for any higher office beyond mayor any time soon.

During a wide-ranging interview about economic development, infrastructure and education policy on location in Mobile with Huntsville radio’s WVNN, Stimpson dismissed the possibility of having any political ambitions outside of Coastal Alabama.

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“We all have choices to make, and my choice was to stay married to the lady I’ve been married to for a number of years,” Stimpson said. “I’m not going to change that, and so as long as that’s the way it is, I’m going to stay right where I am. But I’m honored that somebody would suggest to think that I could run for a higher office.”

According to Stimpson, he sees one of the keys to Mobile’s success as having longevity and stability at the helm. He also pointed to situations in two of South Carolina’s major cities as an example.

“We still have a whole lot of work to do in Mobile. It takes a number of years to really understand all the dynamics of being a mayor. When I look at some of the cities that have been very successful — Greenville, South Carolina or Charleston — you have a mayor that’s been there 12 or 16, or in Charleston’s case 40 years. That won’t be me. But it does take a while, and if you start getting the momentum going and things are going right in the city, it’s important to support that.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

7 hours ago

BCA’s ProgressPAC endorses five statewide judicial incumbents

The board of directors for ProgressPAC, the political arm of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), on Friday voted to endorse five statewide 2020 judicial candidates, including in the hotly contested race for place one on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

All five candidates endorsed are incumbents.

Political observers will likely consider the endorsement of Associate Justice Greg Shaw for reelection as the only non-foregone conclusion undertaken by ProgressPAC on Friday.

Shaw faces a tough primary challenge from popular State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster). Former State Sen. Bryan Taylor (R-Prattville) has also qualified for the place one race, although he has yet to announce a final decision on whether he is actually running or not.

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Additionally, ProgressPAC endorsed Associate Justice Brad Mendheim, Judge Beth Kellum (Court of Criminal Appeals, place two), Presiding Judge Mary Windom (Court of Criminal Appeals, place one) and Judge Bill Thompson (Court of Civil Appeals, place one). All are Republicans.

In a statement, Progress PAC chairman John Mazyck said, “All of these candidates have proven track records of being fair and impartial while serving on the bench.”

“Their commitment to the rule of law and conservative judicial philosophy made the decision to endorse an easy one,” Mazyck, of The Frazer Lanier Company, Inc. in Montgomery, added.

This came the same day that Windom’s campaign announced she raised the most of all judicial candidates last month, per public filings. She ended November with $269,699.89 total in her campaign account.

Windom was first elected to Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008 and has presided over that court since 2012. Prior to her first election, she served as an assistant U.S. attorney, as well as a deputy attorney general for the State of Alabama.

She stated, “When I was elected to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, I promised that I would bring justice to victims of crime, protect the constitution and apply the law as it is written, not create new laws or legislate from the bench. I am proud that I have kept those promises and I will continue to do so.”

The Republican primary will be held March 3, 2020.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Darkness in sunny California

California is plagued by unreliable access to electric power, a situation that will persist for years to come. It’s happening as part of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), one component of the wildfire prevention plans implemented by electric utilities and approved by regulatory commissioners appointed by the governor. During periods of significant wildfire threat, the utility with equipment in those high-risk areas shuts off the power to avoid starting a wildfire. The plan has been in place for years and implemented hundreds of times over the past decade. It is about as popular as you would imagine. If you’re wondering who or what to blame, California offers many targets.

Assignment of blame, of course, is divided along political lines. Liberals blame climate change, a failure to live sustainably, and unscrupulous corporations. Conservatives take aim at the California Public Utilities Commission, the governor and a housing crisis that resulted in home construction in high-risk fire areas. One-sided arguments fed by confirmation bias belie an important truth – there is no one political party or company to blame. The scariest part – we’ll actually all have to work together to solve a complex problem. And it’s going to take decades. Can we do it?

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Wildfire prevention has not been a priority. Activities that remove fuel, such as logging or animal grazing, help prevent wildfires. Logging was made more difficult in California. California law made it impossible to remove wood from state forests that was not already dead and on the ground. Air quality laws in California all but stopped prescribed burns and other treatment measures designed to remove fuel. Finally, several invasive species and diseases killed millions of trees and added to the fuel load. In many forest areas, grazing animals were banned and native species that graze have not recovered to levels that adequately manage grass and brush growth in the forests.

Other actions made management of fires more difficult and the damages they cause more severe. Road building clears vegetation and creates fire breaks while providing access to firefighters. President Clinton all but banned road building in U.S. forests in the 1990s, President Bush restored it 15 years later, and President Obama stopped it less than five years later. While fuel accumulated in the forest and road building ceased, a growing housing crisis drove new home construction in the wildfire-urban interface. Homes were constructed that did not follow state rules on building materials, fire breaks and other fire-related design criteria. And with that, the stage was set – forests full of fuel and private property nearby. All that’s needed is an ignition source.

In the tinderbox that is California, there are many possible ignition sources. Just ask Glenn Kile. In July 2018, Mr. Kile noticed a wasp nest underground in his backyard. He was allergic to wasps, so he hammered a metal stake into the ground to keep the wasps from surfacing. Sparks from his hammering ignited the largest wildfire in state history.

Sparks from power lines can also ignite a fire. Cal Fire (the state firefighting agency) investigators said the Camp Fire, the deadliest (86 killed) wildfire in California history and the costliest natural disaster in the world in 2018 ($16.5 billion in damages), was started by a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) power line failure. While power lines cause a small amount (less than 5%) of the 50,000-plus wildfires started each year in the U.S., many severe fires are caused by power lines. The reason is that severe fires and damaged power lines often share a common cause – high wind speeds. High winds can damage power structures and can also rapidly spread wildfires, making them more difficult to manage.

Maintaining power infrastructure, and the vegetation around that infrastructure, is critical to preventing fire and is the responsibility of electric utilities. As was the case with other stakeholders, wildfire prevention was not a priority of utilities or the regulatory bodies that oversee them. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) repeatedly cut funding to electrical distribution improvements and tree trimming budgets, in the name of keeping rates affordable, and higher priorities like decarbonization. The CPUC also failed to immediately ensure all electric utilities implemented a wildfire mitigation plan even after it became clear that power lines posed a threat to public safety.

At the same time that regulators chose to prioritize other activities, electric utilities like PG&E were mired in distractions created by others (state mandates for renewables, electric vehicles) and of their own volition (pipeline explosions, bankruptcy filings). Already hamstrung by reduced budgets for vegetation management, PG&E served a customer base which increasingly fought them on tree removal. Using California tree laws, customers could take PG&E to court over a single yard tree. While negotiations to trim/remove trees stalled, PG&E would simply skip the tree and move to another property.

With every stakeholder distracted by other priorities, wildfires raged on with an increasing frequency and intensity. From 1980-1999, wildfires burned an average of 3 million acres in the U.S. each year. Over the next 20 years, that burn rate more than doubled to 6.5 million acres per year. The damage from these fires can be severe, especially with more than 2 million homes built in areas with high or extreme fire risk, mostly in the last 20 years.
The delayed response from all stakeholders has now turned into an urgent, all-of-the-above approach to preventing wildfires. Utilities, facing financial destruction from wildfire liabilities, plan to accelerate replacement of aging equipment and adopt new technology, among other measures. Elements of the plan, already in progress, include, but are not limited to:

● Increased weather monitoring to improve the ability to forecast conditions that result in fires and manage equipment appropriately.

● Increased frequency of all inspections of distribution poles and transmission structures, including ground, drone, helicopter and climbing methods.

● Increased vegetation management, including quadrupling tree removal year over year with a priority placed on removal of dead, drying or otherwise high-risk trees in extreme risk areas.

● Hardening of the electrical system, including replacing wooden poles with more resilient, fire-resistant poles, replacing open conductors with covered conductors to minimize sparking and undergrounding power lines.

● An increase in switches in the system, so that fewer people will have to face a planned power outage, if the line starts in an area where fire probability is low.

Even with an all-out effort by utilities to prevent fires, power will be shut off as a last resort. How often should we expect utilities to resort to this measure? A lot. Since 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric shut off power 216 times for public safety reasons.

Power shutoffs aren’t the only measure under consideration. Virtually every stakeholder, from individual citizens to state government, are taking action – some of them dramatic:

● Governor Brown, on his last day in office, signed two forestry bills making it easier to log state forest lands and to build and maintain roads in those areas. The second bill removed requirements to follow California air quality rules when doing planned burns to remove fuel from forest floors and create areas with no fuel to stop fires.

● Governor Newsom issued an Emergency Proclamation that directs Cal Fireto increase vegetation management activity. Historically CAL FIRE planned to treat some 400,000 acres but only treated about 30,000 acres.

● Governor Newsom signed 18 bills to boost housing construction. It’s not just that there is a wildfire crisis in California, it’s that so many people live in wildfire zones. Construction is needed in order to provide housing choice.

● The California Public Utility Commission sped up work on General Order (GO) 95 that includes fire hardening the electric grid with 23 new recommendations finishing work that started years earlier with a final ruling in 2017. Further work is underway to improve GO-95.

● Facing a decade of intermittent darkness, individuals will take matters into their own hands and increasingly look to maintain their quality of life during power shutoffs. Already the leading state for rooftop solar, interest in self-generating power is soaring following the PSPS epidemic, as customer inquiries into rooftop solar and storage have reportedly doubled in recent months.

● With rooftop solar plus storage coming in at $40,000 per typical home, down from the 2016 NREL estimate of $51,000, we can also expect to see sales for diesel generators ($400-$1,100) or backup generators ($7,000-$16,000) soar. Local suppliers have reported customer inquiries increased more than 1,000% in recent months.

Those measures, some of them extreme, highlight the scope of the problem. Many of the measures require a decade or more for implementation. Sweeping changes are coming. Meanwhile, to save lives, it will be dark in California every time there is a high risk of wildfire.

Corey Tyree is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Energy Institute of Alabama. Tyree is also a Senior Director of Energy and Environment with Southern Research. He directs a team of engineers, scientists, and technicians focused on innovative technology solutions for clean energy, air and water.