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Why California spends billions but can’t control its wildfires

by Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow, Sacramento Bee |

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Gavin Newsom had been governor for just one day when he appeared at a Cal Fire station in the Sierra foothills and outlined his plan for protecting California from major wildfires.

More advanced helicopters. Better alert systems. Additional firefighters. Infrared cameras for early detection. In the months that followed, the administration sent out crews with chainsaws and wood chippers to cut brush and trees at dozens of projects near fire-prone communities.

Nineteen months later, wildfire risks seem as bad as ever in California. A series of lightning strikes touched off hundreds of fires that devoured more than 1.3 million acres in barely a week, killing seven people and destroying more than 1,000 homes and other buildings. Despite beefed-up staffing, Cal Fire has been strained to the breaking point.

Since Newsom took office in January 2019, the state has spent nearly $500 million expanding Cal Fire’s personnel and equipment. He signed a bill requiring PG&E Corp. and the other major utilities to spend a combined $5 billion on wildfire safety.

The state has 6,900 firefighters at Cal Fire, which has an annual budget of more than $2 billion. Last summer, Cal Fire had 343 fire engines, operating out of 234 fire stations. The agency also operated 12 air attack bases, and 10 helitack bases.

Yet the fires seem to keep getting out of control, and experts say they’ll continue to roar in the months and years ahead, unless the state and federal governments continue to spend billions of dollars more on making California communities more resilient to fire.

“I don’t think at this point we’ve gotten much traction with the problem,” said Malcolm North, a fire ecologist at the University of California, Davis and the U.S. Forest Service. “The enormity of it … it would probably take years. There’s no simple or cheap solution to this problem.”

Michael Wara, a climate and energy expert at Stanford University who’s advised the state Legislature on wildfire issues, said the state is still grappling with a legacy of spending money on fighting fires instead of on forest health, such as thinning overgrown brush and removing millions of drought-killed trees, building fire breaks around communities and intentionally setting fires when conditions safely allow it bring fire back into forests that evolved to burn every few years.

“We’ve made substantial investments and improvements in our suppression tactics the last five years, but we have not yet made the kind of investments to materially change the risks on the ground,” Wara said.

There’s a lot of ground to cover: California has 33 million acres of forests, plus another 15 million acres of grassland and scrubby terrain called chaparral, the dense brush that surrounds many foothill communities up and down the state.

That’s 48 million acres, nearly half the state’s total landmass, at considerable risk of burning. Approximately 3 million California homes, about a quarter of the total, lie within risky “fire hazard severity zones” mapped out by Cal Fire.

These were places that burned regularly before homes were built, and before the state and federal governments spent decades racing to put out every fire that ignited to protect communities and lucrative timber stocks.

UC Berkeley researchers estimate that prior to 1800, about 4.5 million acres of California burned in a typical year. Around half of those acres burned because Native Americans intentionally ignited them as part of their traditional land-management practices.

An executive order Newsom signed in January 2019 was intended to reduce the state’s “fire deficit.” Newsom drafted a Cal Fire blueprint for removing excess trees and brush from 35 high-priority hot spots around the state within months.

But the projects, in all, covered about 90,000 acres of land, a sliver of what’s needed.

“They’re a start, but just a start,” Wara said.

Earlier this month the state signed a memorandum of understanding with the Trump administration that aims to reduce fire conditions on 1 million acres of forest and rangeland each year by 2025 – roughly doubling the current amount of treatments. But even achieving that ambitious goal would still leave millions of acres vulnerable.

The latest rash of fires illustrates what’s at stake in much of California’s landscape.

“Every part of California is receptive to wildfire,” said Yana Valachovic, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor on the North Coast. “Especially in a year like this, when we had a pretty dry winter and spring, so a lot of the state is in drought conditions.”

President Donald Trump lashed out against California’s forest management, a favorite target of his. “You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” he said at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.

But the truth is a good deal more complicated.

In August alone, California has seen fires burn in a wide array of habitats – evergreen timber and coastal redwood groves, oak woodlands, deserts, chaparral and grasslands – across a mosaic of public and private lands.

Each habitat type needs to be managed differently to reduce fire risks and each comes with its own funding challenges, making it difficult to reduce fire risks quickly, said Scott Stephens, a wildfire expert at UC Berkeley.

“It is a long haul. A long haul,” he said.

And sometimes there’s only so much that can be done. For instance, experts say reducing fire danger in chaparral is next to impossible.

“Fuels reduction doesn’t work very well,” North said. “It grows back so fast, it doesn’t do you any good.”

>> Climate change worsens wildfire risk

North and others say climate change makes the problem worse. It’s made for hotter, drier summers and extends the fire season deeper into the calendar.

Last fall, as state officials blasted PG&E after the Kincade fire and a series of “public safety power shutoffs” that darkened hundreds of thousands of homes, the utility’s beleaguered chief executive said climate change had made fire safety a moving target. A decade ago about 10% of its territory was prone to wildfires, he said. Now, because of climate change, half of PG&E’s territory is at risk, he said.

The lightning strikes were caused by warm moist air heading south-to-north, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto in the Pacific, said Bay Area private meteorologist Jan Null. Adding to the risk were extremely dry conditions. “We had a dry winter, we had forests that were still struggling to recover from the drought,” he said. “With most disasters, you had a cascade of events.”

In addition, climate change also makes weather more volatile, experts say. The lightning strikes “certainly have fingerprints of climate change on them,” North said.

A hotter California makes it harder for those working on the ground to decrease the risk. That includes people like Steve Wilensky, the head of a nonprofit in Calaveras County that raises money to remove trees and create “fuel breaks” in the southern end of the Eldorado National Forest.

Wilensky began his work more than a decade ago, convening groups of loggers, environmentalists and others and gradually building a consensus that the forests needed more aggressive treatment. He remembers taking fire chiefs with him as he pleaded with residents to allow crews to remove brush and trees from their properties.

At first, “whole neighborhoods would run us off,” he said.

But over time, he was able to win hearts and minds. Armed with $15 million in state and federal grants, his organization is overseeing a three-year project to carve 200 miles of fuel breaks through the Eldorado.

But he worries that it’s not enough to keep pace as the woods stay drier for longer.

“For every year that we don’t address climate change, the goalposts move ahead of the activities we do,” Wilensky said.

>> Is California doing enough to reduce risk?

After the devastating wine country fires of 2017, California lawmakers and policymakers began tackling wildfire risks with renewed vigor. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation appropriating $1 billion over five years to thin California’s forests through tree removal and intentionally set fires called prescribed burns. Funding comes from the proceeds of the state’s cap-and-trade program, which charges polluters for greenhouse gas emissions.

The day after Newsom was elected, the Camp Fire blew through the town of Paradise, destroying more than 12,000 buildings and killing 85 people – the deadliest wildfire in state history.

The fire plunged PG&E into bankruptcy and prompted Newsom to go further. The Legislature created a $21 billion insurance pool to shield the big investor-owned utilities from future wildfire liabilities, with funding coming from their ratepayers and shareholders. In order to participate, the major utilities – PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – have to spend a combined $5 billion on wildfire-risk measures.

The state threw some taxpayer money at the wildfire problem too. The Legislature last year appropriated $315 million for new helicopters, $40 million for new fire engines and millions more for additional fire crews. This year the Legislature agreed to $158 million in new staffing for Cal Fire, including permanent and temporary crews.

Yet some fire safety initiatives have collided with other state priorities. SB 182, a bill that would have made it harder for local governments to approve new housing developments in high-risk communities, got held up in committee last fall after some lawmakers protested that it would undermine California’s efforts to combat its housing shortage. The bill is still pending.

Earlier this year Newsom proposed spending $100 million to help communities fire-prone areas retrofit their housing supply with fire-resilient roofs and other safety measures. The proposal followed a McClatchy investigation that found homes built after 2008 – when strict fire codes took effect in wildfire country – survived the Camp fire in Paradise at a far greater rate than older properties.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic clobbered the economy and wiped out California’s budget surplus, the $100 million for home “hardening” disappeared from Newsom’s spending plan.

Some legislators began pushing, in the Legislature’s waning days, a proposal to resurrect funding for home hardening and other wildfire risk programs. AB 1659 would raise allocate $3 billion for accelerated vegetation treatment, home retrofitting projects and more.

The fires burning this month showed just how important that work is to “improve the odds of homes surviving without firefighters,” said Valachovic, the UC Cooperative Extension forestry adviser.

“We can’t get firefighters everywhere,” she said. “And this lightning series really showed us that things went too far too fast.”
>> Thinning a forest in Northern California

When the Hog Fire ignited in mid-July west of Susanville, it didn’t get a lot of attention outside of the immediate area. It burned fewer than 10,000 acres and destroyed just two buildings.

Tom Esgate thinks he knows why – the fire burned in a wooded area that had recently undergone intensive thinning, courtesy of $3 million worth of state and federal grants. The project, conducted in partnership with landowner Sierra Pacific Industries, helped reduce the Hog fire to “a low-intensity fire that was manageable,” said Esgate, who oversaw the project as leader of the Lassen County Fire Safe Council.

The Fire Safe Council then turned its attention to an area south of Susanville. In June it began a similar effort to selectively remove Ponderosa pines and other trees and brush. The hope was it would allow for the sorts of restorative fires that were the norm before white settlement: a fire creeping along the forest floor instead of a fast-moving inferno that turns whole stands of trees into torches.

But 2020 showed how quickly events can overtake noble intentions. In late August, long before the project was done, lightning struck the area and ignited what became known as the Sheep fire. Within a few days, it burned 29,000 acres, prompted evacuations in the area around Susanville and destroyed a handful of buildings.

If the work had been completed, things might have been different.

“The fire wouldn’t just put itself out, but I don’t think it would have grown to this latitude,” said Doug Lindgren, owner of Tubit Enterprises Inc., the logging company hired to do the work.

Lindgren described patch of forest where he was working was “a wall” of brush, trees and downed limbs that was hard to even walk through. “Just stuff everywhere,” he said.

“We are doing some projects that probably should have been done 20 years ago.”

If the Lassen forest was a wall, the state and federal governments helped put it there.

Many of California’s woes originated in the state and federal government’s zealousness to put out all fires as soon as possible – a policy of “fire suppression” that dates back to the early 1900s to the era of Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the Forest Service, and left forests overgrown with trees. Of the more than 30 million forested acres in California, about 57 percent is on federal land.

“A century of fire suppression remains firmly entrenched within federal and state firefighting agencies and has left forest floors deep in flammable ground cover,” the state’s Little Hoover Commission said in a 2018 report.

Only in recent years have policymakers begun embracing the idea of thinning forests for fire safety, either by removing trees, allowing remote fires to burn for a while, or starting “prescribed burns” to eliminate some of the fuel.

“We’re just trying to dig ourselves out of a very, very deep hole,” Michael De Lasaux, a retired UC Cooperative Extension forestry expert who had to be evacuated from his home in Quincy, Calif., said recently. “We’re decades behind the curve.”