California Stuck in ‘Vicious Cycle’ of Wildfires, Policy Expert Says

California Stuck in ‘Vicious Cycle’ of Wildfires, Policy Expert Says
A firefighter drives past a burning hillside as the Bobcat Fire burns through Valyermo, Calif., on Sept. 18, 2020. (Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images)
Siyamak Khorrami
Jack Bradley

California is on track for its worst fire season in recorded history, and it could have been prevented by proper state budgeting and forest maintenance policy, says Lawrence McQuillan, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, an Oakland-based think tank.

“We're living with a legacy of 100 years of government mismanagement of California forest land,” McQuillan told The Epoch Times.

McQuillan has helped form the Independent Institute’s policy recommendations regarding California’s wildfires. He explained that the state is trapped in a “vicious cycle”: Resources are used up in the suppression of fires, leaving almost nothing for fire prevention.

Prevention Over Suppression

McQuillan said that both federal and state governments are locked in a policy of “rapid suppression of fires.”

“So what we've seen now in the last 10 years, I think, is just the legacy of this policy of putting out fires quickly, or not allowing fires to do what naturally fire does, which is clear out the undergrowth and rejuvenate forest land,” McQuillan said.

CalFire, the primary firefighting agency in California, has a $2 billion annual budget. “Unfortunately, what we've seen in recent years is, because the fires have been so prolific … this budget is eaten through very quickly. Sometimes, a few months into the year, the money is already gone. So they appropriate more money for suppression, but as a result, there's no money left over for prevention,” he said.

“Prevention is not done, so the fires in the future are worse, which eats up the prevention money even quicker, because it's being diverted to suppression.”

A Change of Pace

McQuillan said that county governments and landowners should be more involved in fire management, because they are the most affected by wildfires.

“It's not some bureaucrat in the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., who suffers, that has to breathe this air or lose a loved one,” McQuillan said. “It’s people in California.”

“My recommendation would be to delegate the authority to county governments, to contract with private companies to go in there and do the work. And I think there'd be a much greater urgency if county governments had that authority,” he said.

Causes of Wildfires

The leading causes of these wildfires, according to McQuillan, are the “dead trees, down limbs, thick brush, [and] heavy vegetation” building up in California’s forests.

“There's 150 million dead trees in California. All of this is fuel, and it just takes, you know, a spark, as we've seen recently," MQuillan said. "It's a tinderbox just waiting to explode."

“In the 1800s, California had about 50 trees per acre, and today California has upwards of 500 trees per acre. So we've seen an explosion of trees and vegetation. A lot of these trees are very weak because they're not getting the water, the nutrients, sunlight that they need to be healthy. So they're very susceptible to disease and overcrowding,” he said.

He gave the example of Paradise Lake, California, to show the effectiveness of preventative measures.

Ninety percent of all the structures in Paradise were destroyed by the Camp Fire. But just outside of Paradise, in Paradise Lake, Calfire had removed underbrush and excessive growth.

“They did three treatments of this Paradise Lake area over five years, and as a result, that area was largely spared any damage from the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise,” he said.

By removing the dead trees and taking out the timber in a process called “salvage logging,” not only is the risk of wildfires reduced, but the timber can also be used for beneficial purposes, such as to make chipboard, McQuillan said.

Prescribed Burns

All of the excess growth in areas prone to wildfires “should have either been thinned or allowed to burn, either naturally or through prescribed burns,” he said.

“A prescribed burn is a low-intensity fire that prevents mega fires from starting. So, in my opinion and estimation, it would be far better to do a lot of these small burns, rather than not do them and then allow a mega fire to develop. That's far worse for the air quality, for pollution, for people's health than these smaller controlled burns would be,” McQuillan said.

Prescribed burns are much more “surgical” than wildfires, McQuillan said.

Barriers to Prevention

As to the 40 percent of California land that is privately owned, McQuillan said it’s still essentially controlled by the state government. Because there are so many rules and regulations that govern how private landowners can maintain their land, they're not really free to do the thinning.

To do a significant thinning on your own land, you would first need to apply for a permit from the State of California, and that can take weeks or months to get, he said.

But even after obtaining a permit, that still doesn’t guarantee you can go ahead with it. “Because the State of California has these regional air quality districts that determine when it's okay to do burns and when it's not. And as a result, you can have a permit for four years and never be able to use it, just because the regional air quality districts won't let you do the burn,” McQuillan said.

Recommendations for Homeowners

McQuillian recommends that homeowners check with their insurance companies to see if they get a discount for doing preventive work.

“Most homes that burn in wildfires are never directly in contact with flames. They burn down because embers fly—in some cases miles away from the source of the fire—and land on roofs, or land on gutters, and start the home on fire.

So, one thing you could do is install gutter guards, which keep embers out of your gutters, and there’s also fire-resilient roofing with that same effect,” McQuillan said.

Clearing back vegetation 10 to 30 feet from your home will also provide a defensible space from wildfires.

In addition, installing external sprinklers on your house can also prevent embers from catching the home on fire by creating a high humidity-like bubble effect around your home that can actually push a fire away from your property.

“California Insider” is an Epoch Times show available on YouTube.

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