California Environmental Regulations Slow Wildfire Prevention Programs

As California’s population grows and spreads, the tactics used to prevent wildfires are becoming more difficult to implement. Prescribed burns and removal of vegetation are two of the most common ways of preventing wildfires but these tools become more difficult to use when people start to build and move into areas that were once wild.

In this photo from late July 2018, a Cal Fire firefighter helps to set a back burn on Cloverdale Road near Redding, California. (Photo Courtesy of Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

The state and federal government is on board to help tackle the wildfire epidemic in California but many feel its not enough.

In March of 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom declared the upcoming wildfire season a state of emergency, hoping to push funds through for forest-thinning projects more quickly. His predecessor, former Governor Jerry Brown also saw wildfires as a major cause for concern. In May 2018, former Governor Brown requested that all the forest land being treated for wildfire prevention be doubled by the year 2023.

The budget for fighting wildfires has also increased. California state Legislature allowed $1bn to be used over five years in the prevention of wildfires. The funds to prevent wildfires came from money generated by California’s carbon trading program.

Additionally, the federal government has said it would like forests to be managed more aggressively.

California’s Board of Forestry, in partnership with Cal Fire, believe 23 million acres of California’s responsibility area would benefit from fuel reduction but the fuel reduction must happen every couple of years in order for it to work effectively.

So if everyone is on board for helping prevent wildfires, why is there a hold up?

California’s strict environmental regulations often slow wildfire prevention techniques. All forest projects must first receive approval under the California Environmental Quality Act, but this could take years and costs money. Calli-Jane DeAnda, the Executive Director for the Butte County Fire Safe Council said the review process eats up 10-15% of the funds received by local fire agencies for forest management programs.

State government has been notified of the bureaucratic hangups faced by fire agencies and is currently working on an EIR (environmental impact report) that is nearly a decade in the making. Since 2010, state officials have been crafting the report so that all vegetation treatments in California would be covered under one document. This would speed up the process for review significantly; projects that would typically take years to receive a green light would now receive an answer in a few weeks.

Lawmakers project that the document will be finished by the end of 2019.

But the men and women at Cal Fire aren’t sure this is the best route to take. Rick Halsey from the California Chaparral Institute said clearing vegetation isn’t the most effective solution.

“We have a home ignition problem,” said Halsey in an interview with the Associated Press, “not a vegetation control problem.”

Using a portion of the money for vegetation clearing and putting it towards building fire-resistant homes would be a better use of funds, in Halsey’s eyes.

“We’ve got to stop looking in different directions than where people are, and frankly Cal Fire is not doing a good job at that,” said Halsey. “The fundamental problem is that they’re a vegetation management agency … they’re not into the building thing. They have to look at the whole picture.”

This story was informed by reporting from the Associated Press.