California Burning

By: - August 9, 2019

It’s summer in California which means our family needs an escape from the desert. It also means fire season. This summer as we drove from California into Oregon we noticed a distinct difference between the health of the trees in Oregon and their California brethren. Juxtaposed with the glorious sight of Mount Shasta covered almost entirely in snow, was what can only be described as an enormous graveyard of trees. It wasn’t just the devastation that we could see from the Delta Fire of September 2018, one of the most devastating fires of last year, the trees in Oregon, just steps over the border with California, looked more lush and full—healthy. Almost a year later these sad-looking California trees still stand for acres.

How could the appearance of the trees growing only feet from each other differ so much?

The answer is likely forest management. Or, as most things in California, mismanagement.

As a teenager living in California I can remember the annual fires that would ravage the state. Fires were common, although perhaps not as devastating as today’s annual conflagration. Returning from the east coast after fifteen years, it’s not surprising that California seems to become engulfed in fire every summer and fall. But California’s forests have been woefully mismanaged and their health has noticeably declined. As pretty much everything else in the state of California, the forest fire situation has deteriorated during the time that I was (blissfully) absent.

I decided to look into this subject a little bit more. During my research, I came upon a very informative report put together by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency. The Commission is a bipartisan board composed of five public members appointed by the governor, four public members appointed by the Legislature, two senators and two assembly members. This report was incredibly illuminating and helped me understand a subject of which I am, admittedly, not an expert. But, perhaps I am qualified to shape California’s fire management policies, because it appears the state would prefer to follow the direction of environmentalists instead of listening to actual forest management experts and scientists.

The federal government owns nearly 60 percent of the forest land in California. California has authority to conduct forest restoration work on federal land through the Good Neighbor Authority authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. To put it simply, restoring California forests to good health demands greater teamwork between state government and the federal government. I’m guessing most readers can see the problem lying therein.

California’s forests evolved with fire and were shaped by fire. Moderate fires can have beneficial effects on forestlands, such as clearing out smaller brush and stimulating natural processes like tree seed dispersal and replenishment of soil nutrients. Experts agree—prescribed fire, where possible, should be used to treat forests. Prescribed fires work in calm conditions that prevent fire from burning out of control and limit smoke and carbon emissions. The state has improperly focused priority on firefighting instead of fire prevention that is achieved through effective forest management actions. Today, California spends all too much for the immediate, emergency consequences of its long-neglected forests. Massive landscapes once sustained by beneficial, low-intensity wildfire are overrun with fire-intolerant trees and thick carpets of forest fuels that can turn even the smallest camp fire or sparking power line into a raging firestorm. Property damage and firefighting costs for local, state and federal governments run into the billions of dollars annually. California is left with unhealthy forests and increasing wildfire risks and occurrences.

Most readers probably know that California is overburdened with regulations. More often than not, clean-up efforts and enacting policies that would help restore health to California forests are hindered by extended waits for representatives of several state and federal agencies to reach an agreement on environmental assessment guidelines. Many of the biomass facilities that might have burned millions of dead trees for energy generation have closed or are closing. Forest floors are covered in deep, flammable groundcover. Plans for prescribed burning often clash with regional air quality regulations, even as emissions from catastrophic wildfires nullify hard-fought carbon reduction accomplishments. I am all for saving a rare frog, lizard or moth, but less overgrown forests will enhance water-sheds and wildlife. And, I have to say, California has some of the worst air quality of any state I have lived in (or visited). The smog in California even rivals the smog I experienced in Bangkok.

Well-known divisions between the timber industry and environmentalists hinder policy goals to thin overgrown forests to their original condition. Driving through Oregon, it became clear that the timber industry is quite vigorous. Carefully planned areas are cleared of trees for the use of their lumber, and then the trees are replanted. Oregon’s lumber industry is obviously doing something right, if the health of the state’s trees is any indication.

California’s government and regulatory agency policies, procedures and actions are out of step with the need to address forest management actions in a manner that effectively enhances forest health and decreases wildfire risks and occurrences.

I have taken a lot of information from the Little Hoover Commission report for this article. While I hope California’s government has begun implementing the suggestions from the report, I sincerely doubt that much is going to change. I frequently meet people who seem to have no memory of California’s history of fires and wholeheartedly believe that the fires are caused by the power grid. This is propaganda we are all fed. In Southern California, Southern California Edison (SCE) has instituted a policy called a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) event where the electric company is allowed to preemptively turn off power in an area based on a number of factors, including forecasted extreme weather conditions, in order to reduce the risk of wildfires. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Northern California’s largest power supplier, has instituted a similar policy in which they will shut down parts of the power grid, possibly for days at a time, to help reduce the risk of wildfires. This is no small thing in areas where the average temperatures in the summer are between 100 and 115 degrees. Perhaps I’m a skeptic, but I tend to wonder if the utility companies are just trying to save a buck.

It’s business as usual in California as no one is addressing the real, underlying problem—forest management and health. If the ruling class doesn’t begin acknowledging the problems behind the state’s ailing forests, California will lose one of its most precious resources.