Thursday, September 10, 2020

Causation And Wildfires

Causation rears its ugly head yet once again.

I've written before about causation, more than once. People like to use causation to blame their problems on others. For example, a young man buys a Kawasaki Ninja crotch rocket motorcycle, even though he's never ridden a motorcycle before. It still has the temp tags on it when he's driving down the road at a hundred miles an hour when the little old lady in a Dodge Dart pulls out in front of him.

At the hospital or the funeral, his friends commiserate as to how it was all that little old lady's fault for not seeing him in time. But the real issue is that if you drive a hundred miles an hour down a typical country road, you won't have time to react if someone does pull out in front of you or a deer jumps out or whatever. As a motorcycle rider you should expect the unexpected.

I recalled before how we stayed in Malibu at a campground when the Santa Ana winds started blowing. We left just before the wild fires started that year, but it was quite an educational experience. I've always lived in fairly humid climates, and it was shocking to see these dry winds come roaring down the hills. You could hold out a towel that was soaking wet and it would be dried out in under a minute. The force of the winds was pretty considerable. Our neighbor's camper was rocking very hard as he failed to properly chock it, and we thought for sure it was going to roll down the hill and then off the cliff into the ocean.

Compounding this problem is that most of southern California is made of flammable material. They have this type of brush called chaparral or mesquite which is mostly oil and burns like a torch. A reader writes that he saw a demonstration where they soaked the stuff in water and were still was able to light it on fire. You can literally burn water with this type of fuel and the dry Santa Ana winds fanning it.

Giving me all that, what is the cause of these wildfires in Southern California that strike every year? If you live in a house that's soaked in gasoline, does it matter who strikes the match? You've set yourself up for a major house fire and any kind of spark or flame may set it off. The answer, of course, is not to live in the house soaked in gasoline, or if you do, don't act shocked when it goes up in flames.

Funny thing - when we were at the campground, PG&E cut the power as a precautionary measure during the high winds, to prevent a fire. People bitched about that, too.  Utility companies make great, faceless villains, as no one likes to pay their utility bill, and waiting on musical hold to talk to them is infuriating.  Yet we need the utility companies to provide us with power - it is a love-hate relationship. Maybe Mr. Musk will change that, with his solar panels and power packs.

Many people want to blame the utility company for the fires in previous years. And as a result, Pacific Gas & Electric has gone bankrupt due to lawsuits. It's inevitable that the power lines will create Sparks. We had one in front of our house, just a few years ago. After a storm, a tree branch fell onto the power lines and started arcing. Pretty soon the branch was on fire and it burned right through the line which then fell to the road.

Fortunately, Georgia Power was on the scene within a matter of moments and was able to shut off the power. Since we live on an island, surrounded by wetlands and an ocean, and it was pouring rain, nothing else caught fire (although we have had small forest fires in the past).  Georgia Power was able to repair the line within an hour which was pretty amazing. Georgia Power does provide very good service.  They are also very proactive about trimming trees around power lines, but they can't be everywhere all the time. It's always possible that a tree branch above the power line will fall on it. And of course, homeowners, businesses, and environmentalists are always critical about excessive tree branch trimming, claiming that topping the trees will destroy them. You can't have it both ways, leaving trees intact to fall onto power lines, or cutting them back so as to kill them. Maybe a better idea is not to plant trees under power lines, yet so many homeowners will do just that, not realizing that the tiny sapling they are planting will grow into the power lines in ten years or so.

(We went kayaking yesterday in a pond near Lake Placid.  High-power lines go over the pond, with the power poles in the water.  If a line broke and fell into the water, well, I would not want to be kayaking there and then!  Such is the nature of risk, though - we take risks every day without realizing it).

It's also a good idea, if you live in a fire-prone zone, not to let combustibles accumulate on your property, or to build a house that is readily flammable - or to build an expensive home.  Or better yet, maybe it is a good idea not to live in a flammable woods, but rather in a less flammable suburb.  Or petition your local government to clean out the brush and undergrowth, and cut down trees to form fire breaks, and when some tree-hugger chains himself to the tree, cut him down as well.  Would that prevent fires?  No, of course, not - not entirely.  But measures can be taken to reduce them.

Others like to posit that global warming is the cause of these wildfires, which is sort of using a natural disaster to advance a political agenda.  Is this true?  Well, warmer temperatures aren't helping - with wildfires and hurricanes (although, knock wood, so far this season has been pretty mild).  But we had wildfires in California and elsewhere (remember Yellowstone? And how we all acted shocked?) for decades, centuries, even.  Putting out fires instead of letting them burn out underbrush is part and parcel of the problem.  Maybe the fires are worse now, but we can't sue global warming to get them to stop.  Reversing global warming could take decades, centuries, or even never.   So that is sort of a dead-end argument, really.

So in a way, it's unfair that PG&E is being saddled with these lawsuits. Yes, power lines will fall on occasion and create sparks. And if those sparks land in an area that is filled with tinder and brush during a high wind, there will be fires.  But such fires can be caused by an errant campfire, a tossed cigarette, intentional arson, or as we saw recently, a gender-reveal party.  There will be fires.  Trying to track down and sue the "causes" is often futile.  It may make people feel better to pin a "cause" to things, but it doesn't solve the underlying problem or prevent future fires.

Of course, the punchline is that PG&E  declared bankruptcy, and it's very likely that in bankruptcy, the people filing these claims against the company will receive pennies on the dollar or maybe stock in the new utility company. Since California, like everyone else, needs electricity, they need a utility company - and the new post-bankruptcy PG&E will provide the electrical power just as before and likely not much will change.  Maybe they will be better at cutting brush and trimming trees - expect howls of protests from environmentalists over tree-murder and rate-payers over their increased bills.   Everyone wants to blame someone else, and no one wants to take responsibility.

A reader writes asking who would be at fault, for example in the Alaska Airlines crash of flight 261.  The plane in that flight was an older model MD-83, which was once a workhorse of the mid-range and short-rage jet routes.   McDonnel-Douglas designed the plane (which started out as the Douglas DC-9 and ended its life as the Boeing 717) using a screw-jack or "acme nut" actuator to control the trim on the movable T-tail.   I've had personal experience with screwjack failures - they use them on the front jacks of trailers, and the one on the Casita failed catastrophically and nearly dropped the tongue of the trailer on my foot!  If not maintained, these can fail, particularly if starved for lubricant or over-worked.

Anyway, this screw jack stripped out on a flight, more than halfway through the flight, due to lack of proper maintenance by Alaska Airlines.   But the way McDonnel-Douglas designed the system, if it failed, the "stop" to limit travel of the horizontal stabilizer would allow the stabilizer to go to a full up position, pushing the plane into a dive.  What's more, the pilots had a inkling of a problem early on, and decided to "work the problem" rather than get the plane on the ground as soon as possible.   By the way, this accident was sort of dramatized in the Denzel Washington movie, "Flight" - in both cases, the pilots were actually able to fly the plane upside-down for a short period of time, as this pushed the stabilizer back down (or up, I guess).

So, using "causation" - who is at fault?  The plane designer for not anticipating this failure and designing-in a fail-safe mode?  They later changed the design and retrofitted all aircraft with a "stop" to limit stabilizer travel - an admission of fault?  Or was it the airline for not maintaining the plane properly?  Or the maintenance crew, or the crew chief, for doing the maintenance improperly and signing off on it? Or the airplane manufacturer again, for not emphasizing the importance of the maintenance in the manuals?  Or the pilots for not landing the plane soon enough?   The airline for not properly training the pilots?  The FAA for not using sufficient oversight for all of the above?   Or are the airline passengers just assuming the risk of dying in an airline crash?  Probably not the last!

The answer, of course, that any good lawyer knows, is you sue the people with the most money and most insurance.  Suing the estate of the pilots is a waste of time - they have no money and they're dead and a jury would think you were heartless for suing them. The airline and the plane manufacturer - now that's the ticket!  You can find a paper-trail of evidence and convince a jury that both defendants were guilty of trying to save a couple of bucks at the expense of human life - that's the narrative you sell, anyway.  Almost as good as a utility company, maybe better!

If that sounds jaded, it isn't - it is just reality.  Causation is bullshit, in most cases.   You can try to find the "source" of any disaster or accident, and chances are, in most cases, it is a chain of events that lead up to the accident.  If any one of the items in the chain didn't occur, the chain would be broken and no accident would occur.  An L1011 crashes in the Everglades while the pilots and flight engineer try to "work the problem" with a malfunctioning landing gear warning light.  They let the plane fly right into the ground while distracted trying to figure out if the gear was down.  Who's to blame?  The pilots and flight engineer, or the manufacturer of the warning light?  The airplane manufacturer?  The airline for insufficient pilot training?  Same deal again - if, at some time during the events leading up to the crash, someone had said, "Oh, wait, we're losing altitude!" they would have recovered and landed safely - breaking the chain of causation.

Of course, today, ground proximity radar would have screamed, "Terrain! Terrain!  Pull Up!  Pull Up!" which is usually the last thing a pilot hears in life.  That's what happens in these deals - we keep adding layers of sensors and alarms to the point where a subsequent incident occurs, the pilots are overwhelmed with buzzers and sirens and verbal warnings and crash the plane anyway.  In many cases, they turn off these alarms (by flipping a circuit breaker) which leads to more problems.  In a vain effort to squelch causation, we end up creating more of it.

If only Mrs. Palsgraf hadn't sat next to that damn scale, we wouldn't have to struggle with her case in law school!  The lives that could have been saved!

When you live in a house soaked in gasoline, you can't act shocked when it catches fire. And while you can try to pin the cause of the fire on a particular person or company, it really doesn't solve the underlying problem. Because if one source of ignition didn't cause the problem, another would. In fact, lightning strikes probably cause more wild fires than any other single source. Who will we sue then, God?

Wildfires will occur again and again, in California, and anywhere else there is a pile of dry brush or other fuel ready to burn.   You stack up a pile of fuel, and it will burn.  Heck, we once had a bag of sawdust spontaneously combust on our front patio, when the floor refinishing people left it there.  Fortunately, little damage was done.   But it illustrates how things like to burn - how accidents are all-too-ready to happen.

In your personal life, using "causation" to try to pin bad events in your life on others is futile.  Sure, maybe the bank is a jerk for charging you a bounce-fee.  But you bounced the check, didn't you?  Maybe that little old lady should have looked both ways before pulling out.  But if you ride a motorcycle 100 miles an hour, well, that's like sitting in a house soaked in gasoline and playing with matches.   You should expect the expected.

I live on an island near the ocean.   It could all be wiped away in a hurricane, as it was 100 years ago.  I won't act shocked when it happens - which it will, someday.   Maybe I won't be living there, maybe I will be dead by then, but it will happen.   The answer isn't to "blame" someone, but to prepare.  Get insurance, don't spend a lot of money on a beach house, or if you do, put it on stilts and built it to hurricane specs.   Most people do the opposite - trying to duck out on building codes because hurricane straps are "too expensive" or they want to finish off the lower level without a permit.   Then they cry in their soup when the insurance company refuses to pay out when their illegal addition is wiped away.

People - that's the real causation problem right there!