The drum beat about dead trees in forests many miles away from communities most at risk from wildfire in California has become so loud that it has drowned out the screams of the families who have lost so much.
The short answer is most likely related to money. Who benefits?
But first, some history.
We have been involved in fire policy since the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, the 273,000 acre wildfire that marked the beginning of the California’s new era of catastrophic mega fires. The creation of the California Chaparral Institute was sparked by the irrational response to the fire by local politicians and radio talk show hosts, falsely blaming both firefighters and Nature for the devastation.
After heaping blame on the fire service, especially Cal Fire, San Diego County proposed a program to clear 300 square miles of back country habitat. Their rationale? Get rid of nature, get rid of wildfire. After six years of involvement by the Institute and others to help the county develop a new fire risk reduction plan based on science, the county proceeded with their original program. The program was dropped after the we successfully challenged it in court and those who promoted it retired. And we have continued the fight.
Since the Cedar Fire, we have produced dozens of publications and provided hundreds of public presentations explaining the value of the chaparral ecosystem and how we can live safety within California’s fire-prone environment. The Institute has also coined several popular concepts to help promote science-based fire safety and an appreciation for the chaparral including reducing fire risk in our communities “from the house out rather than from the wildland in” and identifying legacy chaparral stands over 60-years-old as “old-growth chaparral.”
Chaparral now is more commonly recognized as an important part of California’s natural environment. The US Forest Service has issued a major policy statement recognizing the value and fragility of the chaparral and has held several symposia focusing on the ecosystem services it provides. New publications are also helping the public recognize and appreciate the chaparral. The Los Angeles Times has done an excellent job educating the public about fires in California and the unique role chaparral plays in making California the special place it is.
Then there’s fire policy.
For the most part, the state continues to take the approach that nature is the problem. Control nature (i.e. clear habitat), the false thinking goes, and the fires will all transform into small, quiet surface fires that won’t burn trees and houses. Most fire agencies continue to focus on defensible space, not on what actually causes homes to burn. And not a word about preventing local agencies from placing homes in dangerous fire corridors or in the path of post-fire debris flows.
It’s the trees that get most all the attention, financially speaking, trees in forests far away from where the risk of the most devastating wildfires occur. Why?
The governor’s only initiative in response to the loss of more than 60 people (counting the Montecito debris flow) and nearly 10,000 structures to the 2017 wildfires is to focus on Sierra Nevada forests and to weaken environmental protection regulations. The legislature’s only response to the fires has been several bills regarding fire insurance and protecting utilities from liability. Cal Fire remains focused on expanding their misguided habitat clearance program. Santa Rosa is approving more developments within the fire corridor that burned the same landscape in 1870, 1964, and 2017. The land management community’s response has been to convene yet more post-fire conferences discussing the same issues with the same people. Citizens impacted by the 2017 fires are suing the utilities for starting the fires rather than suing the government entities that put their communities in harm’s way. No one in a position of authority is challenging the status quo, despite the horrendous loss of life and property.
A woman who lost her home to the 2017 fires, and who indicated she spent $40,000 to satisfy fire safe building regulations, wrote to us and said, “the things our fire service\protection agencies claim to work – DON’T.”
The question to ask is who benefits from the focus on trees in the Sierra Nevada forests? The logging industry, the budding biomass industry, Cal Fire, the US Forest Service, and forestry colleges that obtain grants to conduct vegetation treatment programs – all have a strong lobbying presence in Sacramento.
Who doesn’t have a strong lobbying presence in Sacramento? The families who have lost loved ones and homes in the 2017 wildfires.
Please see our letter to Governor Brown that includes 12 recommendations to protect our communities from wildfire.