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The dangerous combination of aging utility infrastructure and rising wildfire risk


Investigators now say the largest wildfire in Texas history might have been caused by an old power line. And the utility Xcel Energy says its facilities appear to have been involved in the Smokehouse Creek fire. NPR's Julia Simon looks at the growing risk nationwide from aging utility infrastructure.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Much of the country's electric grid was built 60 to 70 years ago, and that's a problem, says Rob Gramlich of consulting firm Grid Strategies.

ROB GRAMLICH: The lines, the transformers, the towers are often very old.

SIMON: Many utilities don't have tech to know when power lines are overheating or sagging, potentially onto brush or trees. Those things spark fires. And then there's climate change, says Michael Wara of Stanford University. Global warming is increasing the risk of large wildfires because the brush is drier, making more fuel for the fire.

MICHAEL WARA: Then we're having these hotter, drier, windier weather conditions that are really conducive to explosive fire growth.

SIMON: This means more wildfires across the U.S. in places you might not expect.

SCOTT AARONSON: Fires on Maui, fires in the swamps of Louisiana - this is not normal.

SIMON: Scott Aaronson is a vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, the leading trade group for investor-owned utilities. He says in recent years, utilities have been responding to the risks.

AARONSON: Today, there's not a single investor-owned electric company that does not have fire risk on their list of things that they are concerned about.

SIMON: But Wara at Stanford says his research in the West has found that when it comes to utilities reducing the chances of igniting a wildfire, it's a very mixed bag.

WARA: There are some utilities that are really leaders and are getting ahead of the risk. And then there are others that we look at and think are walking into a catastrophe.

SIMON: Utilities across the U.S. will have to make changes because these risks are now nationwide.

Julia Simon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.