Energy & Environment

California’s Disastrous Forest Mismanagement

Firefighters watch the Bobcat Fire after an evacuation was ordered for the residents of Arcadia, Calif., September 13, 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

At some point in the next 30 years, global temperatures are expected to rise 1.5°C above their pre-industrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we doubled the average fuel efficiency of all the cars on the planet, decreased the amount of global automotive travel by one half, increased solar-energy usage 100-fold, and increased wind-power capacity by ten times, we would go half of the way toward averting that temperature increase, assuming all the projections are correct and nothing else in the world changes in the interim.

A tall task, but that is how California governor Gavin Newsom plans to combat the wildfires consuming his state. “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening,” said Newsom during a press conference.

We wish the governor luck in reducing annual worldwide carbon emissions by the 8 billion tons necessary to stabilize temperatures while maintaining a vibrant economy. In the meantime, how about a plan B?

Fire plays a natural role in regulating the lifecycles of trees and vegetation. In the pre-industrial era, more than 4 million acres burned in California annually. “Skies were likely smoky much of the summer and fall in California during the prehistoric period,” according to environmental scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.

Fortunately, we now have the knowledge and technology to diminish the frequency and extent of wildfires. Prescribed burns and proactive clearing of dead vegetation are known to reduce the speed and intensity of fires by diminishing the stock of combustible material, but federal and state agencies have long put a monomaniacal emphasis on suppression, rather than prevention, of fires.

After a series of devastating fires across the American West, in 1911 Congress passed the Weeks Act, which increased federal funding for firefighting efforts. The U.S. Forest Service subsequently required that all fires be suppressed before reaching ten acres and committed sufficient resources to put out any fire within the day.

In California, the upshot was a reduction in annual burning by 95 percent, and an attendant increase in the state’s vulnerability to fires. Dead trees and overcrowded forests became literal tinderboxes. Add to the decades of mismanagement a recent spike in tree mortality, due primarily to drought, and you get frequent, desolating fires.

The solution is simple in principle if not in practice, but a web of interests has held back progress in the Golden State. As a recent ProPublica investigation points out, “burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry,” but they face no consequences for allowing overgrowth. Federal legislation requiring environmental reviews for the simplest of forest-management projects makes it doubly difficult. Meanwhile, homeowners strenuously oppose the inconveniences that come with controlled burns in their neighborhoods.

Better forest management would go a long way toward making California safer, but given Newsom’s response, we won’t hold our breath. Instead, we should make room for businesses and households to solve the problem on their own by incentivizing private burning and clearing.

If not, households may take a different approach — leaving the state altogether. The cost of wildfire insurance has already caused a drop-off in home sales in California, a trend exacerbated by high taxes and poor government services. California lost a net total of 1 million residents between 2007 and 2016, and a UC Berkeley poll found that more than half of the state’s voters have considered leaving for political reasons.

We suspect a reduction in carbon emissions won’t stem the flow.

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