At what should have been the close of an already devastating wildfire season, California residents brace themselves as three more large fires rage on. The 2017 season made history. Sadly, however, 2018 is on track to be California’s worst, with at least 23 fatalities at this writing and over 190,000 acres burned. This season has brought fires that burn hotter, move faster, and claim more lives and property than in past decades. Californians have been left to wonder, “Is this the new normal?”
As we choke on smoke and watch our beautiful state burn, we look for an answer. How can this level of destruction be prevented in the future? The governor and news media are quick to answer, citing a combination of climate change and weather as the culprit.
To be sure, California’s multiyear drought left the state dry and vulnerable, and Santa Ana winds coupled with low humidity created the perfect firestorm. Climate change, though, remains the go-to villain, with outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown (D) claiming that the Golden State will have to spend “probably hundreds of billions [of dollars]” to combat the “new abnormal” driven by global warming. Echoing Brown, Scott McClean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection (CAL Fire), claims that “the problem is changing climate leading to more severe and destructive fires.”
Apparently, then, the solution is to pour “hundreds of billions” of dollars into our state government. What specifically this money would fund is not clear, nor are the measures that should be taken to “fight” a changing climate. As a life-long California resident, I find little hope in this vague solution.
But one critically important, yet overlooked factor could inspire hope — forest management. As an avid hiker who’s trekked across my home state, I’ve experienced firsthand the irresponsible way in which our wooded areas are managed.
From the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur to Warner Valley on Mt. Lassen, trails are overgrown and bordered by rotting trunks and dry limbs. When trees fall, instead of the dead wood being cleared, it’s left to decompose along paths and roadways. Underbrush is left untouched as well, with forest floors blanketed in dry kindling. This hands-off approach creates a literal tinderbox, leaving our forests incredibly vulnerable.
One practical solution, which would likely cost less than $100 billion, would be to clear the deadwood and dry brush. Additionally, greater firebreaks should be made along roads and highways, limiting a fire’s ability to spread. If these solutions sound simple, that’s because they are. Despite a stated policy of "chang[ing] the environment by removing or reducing the heat source," CAL Fire continues to allow our forests to develop dangerous amounts of dry material, that is, fuel.
If CAL Fire is ill prepared to follow its stated policy and adequately manage our forests, despite its $443 million budget, perhaps a more cost-effective solution should be implemented. One such solution would be to incentivize private loggers to clear densely packed forests and remote highway shoulders.
As far as incentives go, a good place to start would be streamlining the Timber Harvesting Plan Review Process, which currently can take up to 60 days just to approve a permit.
The Golden State is clearly overwhelmed and now has a proven track record of failing to sufficiently manage her forests. Rather than accept this as the “new abnormal” or throw more money at a system that we know has failed, a commonsense, market approach is in order.