At least 63 people have been killed with 631 reported missing in the California fires as thousands of firefighters, including 200 sent from Texas as well as other states, battle to contain the blazes. More than 7,000 structures have been destroyed, including up to 90 percent of the homes in Paradise, population 26,682, in Northern California’s Butte County. More than a quarter of a million people have been evacuated in both the north of the state by the Camp Fire and by other fires in Southern California, Hill and Woolsey.
Sparks from damaged or malfunctioning power lines operated by PG&E, a state-regulated electric utility, may have been to blame for the Camp Fire’s ignition amidst rugged federally-managed lands to the east of Paradise.
As California’s fire season burst back into the headlines, President Trump generated controversy with a weekend tweet emphasizing the role of forest management in these fires:
There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
But here is why it matters.
In my two decades of service with the California Army National Guard, we used to darkly joke that California’s four seasons were flood, fire, earthquake and riot. California’s rainy season will follow soon after these fires, triggering deadly mudslides on the steep hills now being denuded of vegetation. Mudslides, moving fast and with little warning, have historically caused greater loss of life than fire.
Politics takes no timeout amidst the flame and smoke, and human policy bears part of the blame for this years’ tragic toll of life and loss of property.
When deadly fires were burning last August, Mike Marcucci, the assistant chief of CAL FIRE, California’s main firefighting agency, noted in an interview with the CBS affiliate in San Francisco that, “It’s a daunting task that we’re working with some of our cooperators (i.e. federal and local authorities) to make sure we can get some of those trees out of the way to not add to some of the fuel.” CAL FIRE experts expanded on the problem by blaming decades of policy that discouraged controlled burns to reduce the fuel load in the now-burning forests in the north and hillsides in the south, creating tinderbox conditions.
Some of the needed prescribed burns in Southern California’s coastal chaparral and grasslands have been deterred by environmental lawsuits and air quality concerns.
The federal government controls 46 percent of California’s land, much of it managed by the U.S. Forest Service. In the three decades before 1990, foresters harvested 10-12 billion board feet of timber from national forests every year. By 2013, restrictive environmental policies cut that to 2.5 billion. While the harvest declined, so too did tree thinning and the clearing of brush and diseased trees. The Trump administration is reversing that trend with the biggest harvest of trees on federal land in 20 years, selling 3.4 billion board feet on some 3 million acres—still just a third of the typical pre-1990 harvest.
Harvesting trees on public land is controversial but helps pay for needed brush clearing. Many environmental groups vigorously oppose both. But fighting the larger, hotter fires that result without active forest management is even more costly and threatens lives.
In California, tighter environmental controls, higher prices for timber harvesting permits and competition from overseas and pine forests in American Southeast led to a collapse of the state’s timber industry. Employment in the industry in 2017 was half of what it was in the 1990s.
During this summer’s fires, outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown blamed the record-breaking fires on climate change. In a press conference he warned that the level of climate change-induced forest fires predicted in 20 to 30 years were “now occurring in real time.”
While the frequency of fire has declined, the area burnt and the cost to fight wildfires have increased. Understanding why this is the case is the critical component in crafting a public policy solution to address the issue of deadly forest fires.
Many urban liberals are calling for higher taxes on rural Californians to pay for firefighting.
Rather than higher taxes, one solution to the constant forest management funding shortage in California would be to look to the state’s multibillion-dollar cap-and-trade program designed to address global greenhouse gas emissions. California’s out of control wildfires may have emitted up to 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide this year alone, about one-eighth of the entire state’s annual emissions, largely wiping out two decades of the state’s hard fought greenhouse gas reductions for 2018. Plus, unlike a natural gas-powered electric plant or a modern car, the fires cause terrible air quality.
California’s cap-and-trade program is now taxing some $1.5 billion a year from the state’s economy. The lion’s share of that revenue has gone towards California’s High-Speed Rail project. Until the fires this summer, none of the money had been allocated for forest management or controlled burns to reduce the fuel load until a modest $170 million was announced in August after the last round of big fires.
Rather than continue to fund a government rail project that that was promised as needing no tax money to build and operate, California’s elected officials should consider prioritizing a consistent stream of cap-and-trade revenue to more actively manage the state’s millions of acres of forestland and coastal chaparral. Prevention saves lives.