For those who live in California, the smell of smoke in the air and an orange tinge to the sky have become all too familiar as over 2.7 million acres of forest smoldered in the Golden State since the early hours of August 16th. In fact, 5 of this year’s lightning complex fires have ranked among the 20 largest fires in California history, including 4 of the top 10 and 3 of the top 5. This excludes the Paradise Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, which took place only two years prior. However, California has had a long history of dry summers and lightning-induced fires. What changes have created an environment sustainable for so many infernos on such a scale? Although some may blame climate change, all signs point to policies that have been ineffective or even detrimental to the wildlife the government attempts to protect.
Although global warming is a frequently cited cause of these fires and their spread, the fact is that while it may have a marginal effect on a blaze’s expansion, it isn’t particularly impactful on California itself. The Environmental Defense Fund claims that “rising temperatures, a key indicator of climate change, evaporate more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil, and making vegetation more flammable.” This sounds reasonable but is overrated when applied to California. The California rainy season extends from November to April, followed by roughly six months with little to no rainfall resulting in drier, more flammable plants regardless of the temperature. In addition, the drought that California suffered beginning 2011 actually ended in March of last year with groundwater levels steadily increasing since 2017. Furthermore, the Paradise Fire, which burned down the entire town of Paradise in 2018, occurred in an area that receives an average 64 inches of rain annually, about 3.5 times more than California’s average.
With the climate change argument off the table, the buck stops at the policies that California has implemented to become more environmentally friendly at the expense of becoming fire ready. The most jarring case of this reckless pursuit towards environmental excellence is the Green Energy Mandate of 2015, which declared that California will have 100% renewable energy by 2045. Considering renewable energy made up only about 30% of California’s energy in 2019, it puts pressure on Pacific Gas & Electric to quickly shift its resources to renewable sources. PG&E’s 2019 bankruptcy claim and subsequent bailout by California Governor Gavin Newsom have led the largest electric company in California to become heavily invested in fulfilling the Green Energy Mandate. This mandate prompts PG&E to spend a great deal on green energy, expenses which totaled $44 billion in 2017, and spend comparatively little on maintenance of the existing power grid, $1.5 billion in the same year. This amounts to an interesting spending policy for a company that went bankrupt since it couldn’t pay for damages caused by a fire started by a 99-year-old power line that burned down Paradise, California. One might question if this old power line was an outlier, but almost 30% of power lines are a century old or older as of 2019. The average age of a power line is 68 years. Meanwhile, the estimated lifespan of an electrical pole is 65 years. Historically speaking, the United States was in the middle of the Cold War when the majority of California’s power grid was built in 1951. This may explain how many fires start, but their sheer size in terms of acreage can be tracked to other policies like state regulations.
Many things can help reduce the amount of fuel that wildfires can burn, but the two greatest things that can be done are logging and prescribed fire. Both, however, are hindered by a complicated system of laws and permits. First, lumber harvesting and sales have dropped steadily since 1956, with the exception of a short nationwide lumber boom in the late ’80s. This boom ended due to then-President Bill Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan, which protected old growth forest. Lumber production is now a third of what it was at its peak, and this is in part due to the bureaucratic hoops people must jump through to have a successful logging operation. People may either acquire a THP, a temporary permit valid for 3-5 years, or a NTMP, which is permanent, but is only given to smaller lumber mills. In both cases, the permit process requires several inspections and a detailed, government-approved plan for what and when the mill can cut. This process takes 6-18 months, while forests continue to grow untamed. On the other hand, prescribed burns, planned, small fires that are meant to clear brush that could easily light in a blaze, were legal to do on one’s own private property at the individual’s own discretion until 1992. A moratorium was then placed on this provision until 2018 when it was reinstated with restrictions. One now must take a prescribed burn workshop and notify the city in advance of the intended burn day to preserve air quality. Consequently, two thirds of the acres annually marked to be burned remain untouched.
Although protecting wildlife and plants from fire is an understandable and worthy cause, it shouldn’t be paid in millions of acres, nor in lives. Wildlife can’t be protected if a single powerline or lightning strike will burn it all.