Cal Fire and Governor Newsom Ignore the Most Devastating Wildfires

Governor Newsom’s Executive Order to waive environmental protection laws for a large number of Cal Fire’s habitat clearance and logging operations ignores science, dismisses the lessons of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, and is following the pattern President Trump has established – if facts get in the way of ideology, circumvent the facts.

The back story on this is that Cal Fire has consistently failed to produce a legitimate Vegetation Treatment Plan for more than 15 years. Draft after draft repeated the same mistakes, misrepresented scientific research, contradicted itself numerous times, and relied on logical fallacies to support its misguided conclusions.

As reported in the LA Times, Cal Fire “has been struggling for the last 15 years to certify a sweeping statewide environmental impact report.”

What that actually means is that the agency has been incapable of producing a competent plan based on science and has been called on it every time. We, along with many others like the Sierra Club and CNPS, have been at the forefront of the effort to expose the agency’s failure to develop a plan that would actually protect lives and property. At every turn, Cal Fire and the California Board of Forestry have continually turned back to their outdated clearance paradigm that serves little more than supporting the biomass and timber industries and Cal Fire’s entrenched bureaucracy.

Hence, Cal Fire convinced Governor Newsom to repeat the same approach to fire protection that has failed to protect us from the most devastating wildfires year after year.

Here’s our latest comment letter on Cal Fire’s latest Vegetation Treatment Program proposal.

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Cal Fire Needs to Think Outside the Box, But Can They?

Dear Governor Newsom,

The safety of our families and communities depends on your leadership.

You have an opportunity to be the first governor to inspire a successful wildfire policy based on science, not one dependent on a bygone era – an era during which we did not have to confront the challenges of climate change and an increasing population living near wildland areas.

However, Cal Fire will resist. They will say we need to take a “dual” approach in addressing wildfire – clear habitat and log now, then figure out a plan to harden homes against fire. What they mean is that they want to do more of what they have always done. This is the same approach that has failed to address the actual cause of loss of life and property since the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Cal Fire is in the fire suppression business, not the fire safe community business. As a result, they emphasize the misguided notion that they can control Nature by clearing habitat or logging forests far from where most Californians are at risk. Meanwhile, thousands of homes burn and lives are lost during wind-driven wildfires that ignite our communities miles ahead of the fire front, fires that Cal Fire will never be able to control.

We need to focus on making our communities fire safe now. The science is clear on this point. Communities have already proven that fire safe retrofits can be efficiently and quickly installed. The decision is not as complicated as some claim, it just requires the courage to question the status quo.

Every dollar spent logging forests far from where the majority of people at risk live and continuing what Cal Fire has always done, is a dollar less for fire safe communities. Such an approach will not only fail to protect the majority of Californians from wildfire, fail to meet our carbon sequestration goals, and fail to protect vital natural resources, but will in many cases make the landscape more flammable.

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There is hope. While wildfire is inevitable, the destruction of our communities is not.

Here is the letter we just sent to California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Dear Governor Newsom,

Encouraged by the spirit of hope that your new administration brings to Sacramento, we urge you to take the lead in creating a new wildfire policy based on science rather than tradition.

Why? Because the traditional approach to wildfire protection is backward. It focuses on vegetation rather than what we want to protect – our homes and families.
Homes burn because they are flammable and are built on fire-prone landscapes. Most structures ignite during wildfires because of flying embers that can travel a mile or more from the fire front. This is why so many families have lost their homes even though they have complied with defensible space regulations – their homes were still vulnerable to embers. This is why communities far from wildland areas, like Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, have been destroyed during wildfire and why entire neighborhoods have burned to the ground while the trees around them have not (Fig.1). This is why fuel breaks, twelve-lane highways, and even large bodies of water fail to protect our homes during wind-driven wildfires.

However, there is hope. While wildfire is inevitable, the destruction of our communities is not.

DigitalGlobe satellite image shows damages in the Kilcrease circle community aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise California

Figure 1. Camp Fire, showing the devastation of homes in the Kilcrease Circle community of Paradise. Note the surrounding green, mature forest with little or no scorching. The homes were not burned by a high-intensity crown fire, but were ignited by embers, followed by home-to-home ignitions. Photo: Digital Globe, a Maxar company via Reuters, 11/17/2018.

Jack Cohen, a former lead fire scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, has demonstrated this through decades of research. To stop wildfire disasters in our communities we must accept some basic principles based on science, especially with climate change and increasing numbers of people living next to wildlands. First among them is that the wildfire problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem.

Focusing on forests and dead trees far from our communities most at risk or habitat clearance projects that have little value during wind-driven fires will only guarantee more of the same – continued catastrophic losses.

To stop the destruction of our communities by wildfire we must focus on strategies that will work in our rapidly changing environment: reduce the flammability of existing communities and prevent new ones from being built in very high fire hazard severity zones.

To read more, please view our entire letter here:

Posted in Climate Change, Fire, Forests, Misconceptions | 1 Comment