California Wildfires By: Assemblyman Jay Obernolte
This year is sure to go down as one of the worst wildfire seasons in California’s history. It is October and already over four million acres have burned across our state. In modern state history, that is definitely a first. In fact, looking back over the last 20 years, 2018 was previously the most destructive with approximately 1.59 million acres burned. We have more than doubled that total and still have over a month left until the end of fire season.
There are several ways that our state
and federal government can minimize the destructive impact these fires have on
our communities. The Governor’s response to our record-breaking wildfire season is to combat climate change. His first order of business was to ban gas-powered vehicles by 2035, but that will not solve the wildfire problems the state is facing this year, next year, or anytime soon.
Although we continue to invest
billions of taxpayer dollars in green projects, much of the state is shrouded
in smoke, recording the worst air quality in the world. All the gains that we
achieve with our expensive green policies vanish in a blink of the eye due to
these catastrophic fires. In fact, it is predicted that California’s 2020
wildfires will put approximately 90 million metric tons of carbon emissions
into the air despite years of reduction efforts and billions of dollars in
investments into the state’s cap and trade program.
So, what can we do to minimize the
spread of wildfires in California?
Most forestry experts agree that
climate change is a contributing factor, but there is a growing consensus among
forestry experts that the best way to prevent wildfires in the future is to
focus more resources on forest management – a practice that the state currently
does not prioritize. Although our cap and trade program was created to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions, wildfire management is funded on a discretionary
basis. While high-speed rail (HSR) receives a continuous appropriation
of 25 percent of the revenues generated by this program, there is no
mechanism that funds forest management. For example, in the 2019-20 fiscal
year HSR received $495 million and forest management received $200 million.
However, in this year’s budget, HSR received $99 million and forest management
received no funding at all. That is shameful and shortsighted.
There are other factors to consider concerning forest management. The first question that should be asked is, how did we get here? Decades of fire suppression and misguided environmental policies have led to overgrown forests, coupled with increasing temperatures, drought, and bark-beetle infested trees, which has all created an enormous supply of fuel for fires. Furthermore, California has 33 million acres of forested lands, but of those acres 57 percent is under federal management, three percent is state owned, and 40 percent is privately owned. It might be easy to place blame on the federal government or private landowners for our troubles. After all, the state only owns three percent of our forested lands. But it’s not that simple.
Consider federal lands. They have the many of the same challenges we’re facing in California – endangered species concerns, lawsuits, and environmental regulations. Additionally, money set aside for forest management often gets used instead for fire suppression due to large wildfires. But unbelievably,
some of the fires that burned this year were in places where thinning was delayed by lawsuits. Berry Creek, a small town in Northern California, was determined to be a high fire risk and received a thinning grant of $836,365. Due to a CEQA lawsuit, the project was delayed. That community paid a high price for that delay – it burned down this year.
Over-regulation is also a huge roadblock to forest management. California’s forestry regulations are more stringent than anywhere else in the world. For instance, landowners must submit a timber harvesting plan (THP), an environmental review document outlining what is to be harvested and what steps will be taken to prevent damage to the environment, to CAL FIRE for approval. That might be reasonable if CAL FIRE was the only agency whose approval was required. Unfortunately, there is also the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Conservation, and local water boards that all require their own permits, which necessitate subsequent approval even after the THP is approved. This duplicative permitting process does not serve Californians well and should be streamlined by re-establishing CAL FIRE as the single agency in charge of the permitting process.
The good news is that California
recently entered into a MOU with the federal government, with both committing
to manage 500,000 acres each of federally owned land per year. While this is
progress, there is no built-in accountability ensuring that we reach this goal.
Additionally, in 2019 the state granted CEQA exemptions for 35 projects
affecting 90,000 acres. This was a positive step forward and we should continue
to grant CEQA exemptions in high risk fire areas in order to prevent forest
We need to continue to focus on comprehensive solutions to reduce wildfires instead of taking the easy way out by blaming climate change alone.
Even though it’s a contributing factor, California’s efforts to combat this global issue aren’t going to significantly impact the catastrophic fires we are seeing today. We need to direct resources towards better forest management and change our regulatory bureaucracy in order to see real improvement in the near-term future. If California embraces these pragmatic solutions, I believe that significant progress can be achieved in reducing the devastating impact these fires have on our community.
Assemblyman Jay Obernolte represents the 33rd
that includes the San Bernardino County communities
of Adelanto, Apple Valley, Baker, Barstow, Big Bear City, Big Bear Lake, Big
River, Crestline, Fort Irwin, Hesperia, Johnson Valley, Lake Arrowhead,
Lenwood, Lucerne Valley, Needles, Oak Hills, Phelan, Running Springs, Silver
Lakes, Trona, Twentynine Palms Base, Twin Peaks and Victorville.