Two years ago, California’s Little Hoover Commission warned that unless the state took immediate streps to limit wildfire probabilities, death and destruction were a near-certainty. The Little Hoover Commission, created in 1962, is an independent California state oversight agency modeled after the Hoover Commission – President Herbert, not FBI director J. Edgar – that investigates the state’s government operations, promotes economic efficiency, and issues periodic legislative proposals designed to achieve the organization’s suggested goals.
After studying California’s 2017 wildfire patterns, the commission found that more than 130 million dead trees were scattered throughout the state’s forests and wildlands. The report concluded that at least half of California’s 33 million acres of forestland needed restoration to reduce massive forest fire potential. Predictably, and with tragic consequences, Sacramento officials ignored the commission’s 2018 findings and its recommendation to adopt sounder forest management practices.
Statistics from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) show that by comparison the 2020 wildfire season makes 2017, 2018 and 2019 look like harmless beach bonfires. In 2017, more than 9,000 fires burned 1.5 million acres that damaged or destroyed more than 10,000 structures and resulted in 47 deaths. In 2018, 100 people died. There were nearly 8,000 fires, with nearly 2 million acres burned and more than 24,000 structures destroyed.
CAL FIRE described the following year as “relatively mild.” But, again, nearly 8,000 fires raged, 260,000 acres were ravaged, 732 structures leveled, and three deaths marked 2019. Comparatively “mild” though the 2019 season may have been, Pacific Gas and Electric preemptively cut off power to as many as 2.7 million Northern California customers.
As of October 26, 2020, roughly three quarters of the calendar year, nearly 9,000 fires destroyed 4.1 million acres, damaging or destroying 10,500 structures, and 31 have died. Prompt forced evacuations have helped keep the 2020 death toll lower than 2017 and 2018.
Unknown in all this is the number of wildlife dead.
California has refused to heed warnings that its inadequate forest management policies have spawned an ecological crisis. Lumber production may have priority in some areas. But closer to large population centers, other benefits must be evaluated like providing space for foraging wildlife animals, protecting watersheds and offering ample recreational space for those who wish to enjoy the outdoors. The multiple-use land concept evolved from the first U.S. Forest Service leader and Pennsylvania’s two-term governor Gifford Pinchot who once said that when conflicting interests need reconciliation, the solutions should be seen from “the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”
Enormous population growth has slowed California’s efforts to contain wildfires. The state’s population is nearly 40 million, double 1970’s 20 million level. Residents now live in remote, inaccessible and previously uninhabited regions. Although experts agree that California must step up its forest management protocols and instigate scheduled burns and vegetation removal, for 2020, that’s too little, too late. Newsom finally declared a state of emergency on August 18; California’s first 2020 wildfire occurred in Humboldt County on February 15.
California’s best hope for future wildfire containment lays with the strange-bedfellow alliance between Newsom and President Donald Trump, a long-time critic of the governor’s indifference to prudent forest management. The U.S. Forest Service and Newsom have reached an agreement to, by 2025, embark on a $1 billion plan to clear vegetation that fuels fires on 1 million acres annually. An outline for how to put the plan in place will be developed during 2021.
Called the Shared Stewardship of California’s Forest and Rangelands, the plan represents the first major attempt between California and the federal government to jointly improve public safety on the state’s 33 million acres of forested land. Addressed will be California’s funding shortages, poor collaboration between agencies, and the need to better protect vulnerable communities, major issues that fire scientists and forest ecologists identified years ago as problems.
Decades of California’s mismanagement of its forests cannot be cured in the five years that the Shared Stewardship program has allotted, but it could mark the beginning of a more cooperative era – at least on forest management – between California and the White House.