3 Ways to Prevent California Wildfires

July 25, 2021 Updated: August 10, 2021

Commentary

Wildfires are once again burning down California.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on July 22, “The Tamarack Fire burning through nearly 44,000 acres near South Lake Tahoe crossed the border into Nevada late Wednesday as flames encroached on Highway 395, prompting evacuation warnings.”

The largest fire currently burning in the country, the Dixie fire in Northern California, has grown to become the second-largest fire in California’s history, at more than 460,000 acres.

This is just the beginning.

While some wildfires burn through federal lands controlled by President Joe Biden’s administration, other fires break out on state lands controlled by the California government.

The fires are a major threat to life and property—and to Gov. Gavin Newsom as he campaigns against the Sept. 14 recall election. He’s fingering a predictable culprit for the fires: climate change.

“We’re burning up. We’re choking up. We aren’t just heating up,” Newsom told Biden during a June 30 meeting of Cabinet officials and western governors.

But it isn’t climate change, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) told me. The Republican congressman represents the area being burned down by the Tamarack fires. It’s been a top issue with him since I met him 34 years ago, when he was a young assemblyman and I was starting out writing editorials for The Orange County Register.

He pointed to Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the Spanish explorer who on Oct. 8, 1542, first espied San Pedro Bay and named it “Bayo de Los Fumos” (Smoky Bay) because it was burning down.

“That wasn’t because people were driving SUVs,” McClintock quipped.

“Paleontologists tell us in pre-Columbian times what became California lost 3 to 4 million acres a year to forest fires. We formed the U.S. Forest Service to actively manage the public lands so we didn’t constantly lose them to these conflagrations.”

By the middle of the last century, the acreage lost was brought down to about 250,000 acres per year.

But in the 1970s, that all changed, according to McClintock.

“Congress started passing laws that made containing fires cost-prohibitive. We used to send firemen into the forests to mark off trees to keep, then sell the rest. We made money from it to pay for managing the forests,” he said.

“Now, the new laws require multimillion-dollar studies over many years. No longer do timber sales make us money. They cost us money because of all these added requirements. So not much gets done. Last year, we lost about 4.3 million acres to wildfires in California.”

What about the 1970s’ new management philosophy of letting the fires burn?

“That’s how nature does its gardening,” McClintock said.

But now people live close to, and in, these forests, so humans have to take charge.

First: Back to Treatment by Humans

What is there to do when it comes to managing these wildfires?

“Two words: Treatment matters,” McClintock said.

The first thing is to go back to managing the forests in the pre-1970s way. Environmentalists like to “get back to nature.”

But I’m reminded of nature philosopher Alston Chase, author of “In a Dark Wood: A Critical History of the Fight Over Forests” (2001) and “Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Forest” (1987), among other books.

He insisted that the entire globe is now a garden tended by humans. There’s no such thing as going back to a Rousseauian “state of nature.” We either tend the planet well or poorly. We’ve been tending the forests poorly.

McClintock pointed to how well private and Native American lands are cared for compared to federal lands.

“Timber companies make a great deal of money managing their lands properly,” he said. “The federal government used to do that, but no longer does because of these laws.”

McClintock said you can take a plane ride over the borders for such lands and see the difference. A clear line demarks where private and Native American lands are tended well and where the federal lands are tended poorly.

There’s some good news on that front. He pointed to the 2016 WIIN Act, S.612 by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) signed into law by Democratic President Barack Obama. It included some wording from a McClintock bill. He said S.612 reduced the time it takes for studies on treating forests to four months from four years. And study length “has dropped from 800 pages to a dozen or so pages.”

Given that the Government Printing Office still churns out printed copies of studies, cutting the length by 788 bureaucratic pages alone would also save thousands of trees from being cut.

These slimmed-down rules are now being used for thinning forests around Tahoe, according to McClintock.

Second: Rapid Attacks

The second thing to do, McClintock said, is to end the policy of monitoring such fires until they get out of control.

“Stop this nonsense that ‘fire is our friend’ and monitoring fires until they get completely under control. The Tamarack fire right now in my district, it started July 4. The U.S. Forest Service did nothing for weeks. A single aerial drop of flame retardant could have stopped it. They waited for 12 days until it exploded out of control,” he said.

“For the Reading Fire in 2012, a lightning strike started it. The National Park Service, instead of putting it out, decided to monitor it. Then, it exploded out of control and consumed 30,000 acres.”

He said it’s frustrating how, if fires aren’t “put out cold” at the beginning, “many more drops are needed for the ensuing ‘mega’ fires.”

“It’s the federal managers that have this ideology,” McClintock said. “They’re reluctant to do so because of this ideology that fire is an important management tool. Not under these conditions. You don’t monitor a rattlesnake when it’s in your room, you kill it.”

Third: Underground Power Lines

The third thing to do comes from my days as press secretary to then-state Sen. John Moorlach: Put the power lines underground. Moorlach sponsored several bills to advance the undergrounding.

Senate Bill 1463 from 2016 “would have accelerated the fire-prevention efforts at the California Public Utilities Commission and CalFire to provide validation to the electric utilities to speed their hardening of assets that have caused recent wildfires,” McClintock said.

“Both houses of the Legislature passed it with bipartisan support and no opposition. Then-Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

“The next year, in 2017, massive wildfires burned to the ground large swaths of Northern California in October and Southern California in November. Most of the fires reportedly were sparked by downed power lines.”

On the positive side, in 2018 Senate Bill 901 became law and included wording cabbaged from a separate Moorlach bill to mandate “$200 million of cap-and-trade annual tax revenues to harden electric grid assets.”

True, undergrounding is expensive. But what’s more expensive than the loss of property and lives, as well as polluting the skies across the state with choking smoke worse than anything caused by SUVs?

Well, if it paid to be ahead of your time, Moorlach would have been reelected.

A headline from the July 21 Sacramento Bee states, “PG&E vows to bury 10,000 miles of California power lines, as the Dixie Fire explodes.”

The story reads: “Pacific Gas and Electric Co. executives committed Wednesday to move 10,000 miles of the utility’s power lines underground, a daunting and expensive task for the embattled utility that’s just emerging from bankruptcy after it was held responsible for some of California’s most destructive wildfires in recent years.

“PG&E officials noted that they’ve already buried some 65 miles lines in Butte County, especially in Paradise, the site of the infamous 2018 Camp Fire.

“But Poppe said more lines need to go underground to keep communities safe. ‘We start today.’ … she said.”

Unfortunately, this came at least five years too late.

John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He’s a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary to California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at johnseiler@substack.com.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Seiler
John Seiler
John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary to California State Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at johnseiler@substack.com