California’s Wildfire Crisis

Bad forest management is at the root of the conflagrations

Smoke from wildfires blocks the sun in San Francisco, CA. ©Christopher Michel

This article was originally published in National Review.

California just had its worst wildfire season in modern history. The August Complex fire scorched more than 1 million acres last fall, making it the largest fire ever recorded in the state. More than 4 million acres burned in the Golden State in 2020, blanketing much of the region in an orange haze of ash and smoke for days on end.

As California burned, the wildfire crisis became engulfed in election-season politics. The issue was often portrayed in simple binary terms: Either forest management or climate change was to blame. President Donald Trump repeatedly criticized California for not doing enough to “clean” its forests, threatening at one point to reject the state’s request for disaster relief, while then-candidate Joe Biden took every opportunity to suggest that the problem was really the Trump administration’s failure to acknowledge climate change.

The politicized debate over California’s fires generated more heat than light. The focus soon became Trump’s climate-change denial and his musings about forest management rather than the reality of the situation on the ground. And it obscured a growing consensus over what needs to be done to address California’s wildfire crisis.

Neither Trump nor Biden accurately diagnosed the problem. Although climate change can make fires worse, the climate policies favored by Biden and California governor Gavin Newsom—mandating clean energy or banning fossil-fuel extraction—would do little or nothing to address short-term fire risks. And California, for all its faults, is not mostly to blame, as Trump suggested. More than half of California’s forests are federally managed; the state owns only 3 percent, with the remainder held by private landowners, timber companies, and tribes.

The primary problem is federal forest mismanagement, which has made fires larger and more destructive than they otherwise would be. Decades of fire suppression have created dangerous fuel loads in many western forests, turning them into tinderboxes that ignite easily, burn intensely, and inflict significant damage to ecosystems, watersheds, and nearby communities. At the same time, federal agencies have increasingly shifted their focus from managing forests to fighting fires. Wildfire-related spending now accounts for more than half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget, while expenditures to reduce fire risks are flat or declining.

There is growing recognition that more needs to be done not only to fight fires but to prevent them from becoming so destructive in the first place, especially in California. Many experts are now calling to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration, which includes selective thinning and prescribed burns to reduce excess fuel loads in fire-prone forests. A recent study led by scientists with the U.S. Forest Service found that these fuel loads—not climate change—are the most important factor driving severe fires in western forests, accounting for 53 percent of the relative influence of fire severity. Other contributing factors include climate (14 percent), fire weather (23 percent), and topography (10 percent).

The need for forest restoration has brought together unlikely political collaborators. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Steve Daines (R., Mont.), two lawmakers not typically aligned on policy issues, recently co-sponsored legislation to ramp up forest restoration. And earlier this year, Representatives John Curtis (R., Utah) and Joe Neguse (D., Colo.) launched the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus to advance solutions, including forest management.

But agreement on the need for forest restoration doesn’t mean the solutions are easy to implement. Environmental regulations, bureaucratic red tape, and litigation risks create obstacles and can delay or derail even the most needed projects. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the pace of forest restoration in California’s headwater forests—the source of two-thirds of the state’s surface-water supply—has been flat for the past decade, at just 90,000 acres annually.

Increasing the pace of restoration means cutting red tape, which makes some environmental groups uncomfortable. The bill introduced by Senators Feinstein and Daines aims to speed up restoration work by streamlining environmental reviews and reducing regulatory burdens for certain projects. And last year, California entered into an agreement with the Forest Service to increase restoration activities on federal and state forests, which will likely require such reforms.

There are lesser-known obstacles as well. Prescribed burns, in which fires are deliberately set to clear brush and mimic the low-intensity fires that were common in past centuries, are a crucial management tool, but regulation often inhibits their use. Smoke from prescribed burns is considered a human-caused source of emissions under the Clean Air Act and is included in state emissions calculations. Wildfire smoke, by contrast, is not. By counting smoke from prescribed burns as pollution, clean-air regulations can often thwart the very thing that is needed to reduce smoke from catastrophic wildfires.

There are bright spots, however. In California’s Tahoe National Forest, one innovative solution is on display: A “forest resilience” bond, piloted by the nonprofit Blue Forest Conservation, has raised $4 million in private capital to fund restoration projects on 15,000 acres of fire-prone headwater forest. The bond is funded by investors—in this case, an insurance group, an impact-investing firm, and two nonprofit foundations—that have an interest in restoring healthy forests, and it will be repaid by beneficiaries of forest restoration. The state of California and a local water utility have agreed to repay the bond for the Tahoe project, plus a reasonable rate of return. The upfront financing provided by this public–private partnership will allow the work to be completed in just four years, rather than the ten to twelve that were originally expected.

Projects like this are the exception, however, owing to policy barriers and litigation risks that can undermine such partnerships. To get more projects off the ground, and at the scale needed to address the problem, several reforms are needed to remove persistent obstacles that hinder forest restoration.

In a new report published by the Property and Environment Research Center, my colleagues Holly Fretwell and Jonathan Wood offer several ideas. Among their suggestions: Exempt certain forest-restoration projects from environmental review, require that lawsuits for restoration projects be filed quickly, and exclude prescribed burns from state emissions calculations. To encourage more public–private partnerships, they call for reforms that would allow the Forest Service to enter into longer-term agreements with outside collaborators. That could spur the kind of large-scale restoration projects that are essential for restoring healthy forests.

California can help by not making a difficult situation even worse. For one thing, it can reverse its foolish attempt to prevent insurance companies from raising rates or canceling coverage for homes in areas with high risk of wildfire. After several extreme fire seasons in recent years, the state’s insurance regulator froze policies, essentially encouraging people to remain or rebuild homes in risky areas. Rather than let insurance prices adjust to reflect the underlying wildfire risk—and send strong market signals to discourage development in fire-prone areas—California’s regulators seem to be engaged in their own form of science denial about the growing wildfire threat in the state and about policies needed to respond to it.

Simply acknowledging the existence of climate change won’t bring about the reforms needed today to address California’s wildfire crisis. And pressuring the state to “clean” its forests won’t cut it either. But there are things the feds and the state can do now that would increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. In a state where seven of the ten most destructive fires have burned in the past five years, such reforms can’t come soon enough.

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