Some Experts Criticize California Wildfire Prevention Efforts

October 25, 2019 Updated: October 25, 2019

California’s persistent wildfires have prompted firefighting authorities to take what some consider to be less than ideal measures to prevent disaster.

The California Vegetation Treatment Program (CalVTP) aims to remove brush from Redding to San Diego with the aid of flames and chainsaws.

“California is experiencing a wildfire crisis,” stated a July report (pdf) for the program. “Since 2010, the number of wildfires occurring annually has been increasing, as has the number of acres burned.”

“Much of this increase in acreage, especially in 2017 and 2018, is the result of record-setting fires primarily driven by wind … Fires driven by topography and those that move more slowly through the landscape, as well as primarily wind-driven fires that have slowed, are those that might be further slowed or stopped entirely by a vegetation treatment implemented under the CalVTP.”

However, Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Species Habitat League, argues that this program will be largely ineffective in Southern California.

“The VTP admits that all these treatments will do no good in the wind-driven fires that cause loss of life and extensive property damage,” Silver told The Epoch Times. “So it is a program without a legitimate purpose, except to spend money and create the impression that something is being done.”

“The state is engaging in a war on vegetation when it is the house that is the problem,” he said. “Rather, the state should limit the ongoing and irresponsible expansion of new development into high fire risk zones.”

If the CalVTP program is implemented as planned, authorities will cut down brush and forests at the rate of 250,000 to 500,000 acres per year — almost double the current speed — within the next five to ten years. The agency will also have to find a way to acquire ten times its current budget to complete the project, Michael Wara, a Stanford University professor who served as one of five members of California’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery, told Scientific American.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, will only treat around 33,000 acres this year.

At the center of this effort is the aim to generate more defensible space to fight fires. One 2018 study reported that this line of thinking is a misstep, citing the fact that defensible spaces, or fire breaks, is one of the least important factors involved in ascertaining the likelihood of a home burning down in a wildfire.

“Overall, structural characteristics explained more of a difference between survived and destroyed structures than defensible space distance,” stated the report, which analyzed over 40,000 at-risk homes between 2013 and 2018.

The study found that vegetation removal beyond 5 to 10 feet around housing structures had little to no effect in terms of protection. The research further indicated that the best way to protect homes in an area subject to wildfire outbreaks is to install ember-resistant vents and double-pane windows, and block the eaves overhanging outside walls.

“What people are not aware of is that if you take your nice evergreen shrub and clear it away and put grass in there, you’re actually making it more flammable,” Alexandra Syphard, a wildfire and housing expert who co-authored the study, told the Los Angeles Times.

“People are getting the wrong message,” she added. “They’re thinking, ‘OK, I just need to clear away all this brush.’ That’s not the safest way to go about it.”

Other experts have indicated that the wholesale removal of native vegetation isn’t a solution in and of itself, but an ongoing process: Annual maintenance would be compulsory in order to ensure that the land isn’t overcome by flammable, invasive plants.

Cal Fire grants that the process of burning and chopping down natural landscapes has noteworthy limitations. Nevertheless, the agency asserts that these areas, once cleared, will offer crucial staging grounds that will aid firefighters when they combat flames.

“Cal Fire pays lip service to defensible space,” Chad Hanson, a fire ecologist and co-founder of the John Muir Project, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We should care about this because it makes a huge difference in terms of whether homes survive a fire or not. We know that from numerous scientific studies and case studies.”

Silver also outlined additional specific safety precautions that the state should consider, including halting insurance for new development, “hardening” existing structures for fire-resistance, improve warning and evacuation systems, and implementing early warning systems so that ignitions are identified more expediently.

Indeed, scientists have suggested that property decimated by wildfire is the result of housing that’s been hazardously placed within wildland areas more susceptible to those types of dangers.

Even so, Steve Hawks, the deputy chief of Cal Fire supervising the Wildland Fire Prevention Engineering Program, has indicated that there are only so many safeguards that can be put into place.

“There’s a certain amount of fires that are going to happen no matter what anyone tries to do to prevent them,” Hawks told the Los Angeles Times.