Where Do California’s Wildfires Actually Come From?

November 11, 2019 Updated: November 13, 2019

As political rhetoric flies between politicians about California’s wildfires and whether climate or forest management is to blame, the smoke just keeps getting thicker.

In a recent Twitter firestorm, President Donald Trump said, “The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management. I told him from the first day we met that he must ‘clean’ his forest floors regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him. Must also do burns and cut fire stoppers.”

In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted: “You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation.”

Soon after Democratic presidential primary contender U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wrote: “Raking leaves is as effective at combatting the climate crisis as your phone’s spellcheck is at fixing your tweets. @Gavin Newsom is doing his job. Maybe you should try it.”

However, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) reports that more than 90 percent of fires in California are started by humans creating that first spark. In California, arson, unattended campfires, fireworks, cigarettes, cars, and power lines have been attributed to an increase in the number of fires.

A 2017 study found that although regional warming and drying may be related to fire frequency and size, as well as longer fire seasons, “there can be no fire without an ignition source,” and “the role that humans play in starting these fires and the direct role of human-ignitions on recent increases in wildfire activity have been overlooked in public and scientific discourse.”

The study calculated that 84 percent of wildfires in the Unites States were caused by human-related activity while the remaining 16 percent were caused by lightning.

Ron Nehring, former chairman of the California Republican Party who was appointed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, believes that blaming wildfires on climate change is not helpful.

“I actually dealt with these issues first-hand when my neighborhood burned to the ground in the 2003 Cedar Fire,” said Nehring.

“Climate change is not the cause of California wildfires,” Nehring told The Epoch Times in an interview. “So, let’s start with that. That is not the cause, and therefore because wildfire has been a phenomena in the state as long as there have been human beings here—and we will continue to have fires for years to come—we have to take steps to mitigate the risks at both the public lands level and at the individual homeowner level.”

Recent wildfires have been a century in the making and likely have more to do with forest management mistakes than climate change, he said.

“Every time there is a fire, we rush to put it out. You have this hundred-year buildup of fuel that has been exacerbated by the bark beetle in California, which has produced hundreds of millions of dead trees that are also fuel,” Nehring said.

Pressure from environmental lobby groups and animosity towards the timber industry have led to a much thicker tree density, he said. The closure and “rewilding” of access roads to the back country and a reduction in firebreaks haven’t helped.

“I think it’s important for firefighters to have access to every square inch of our public lands. We have the ability to deploy aircraft … into areas where we don’t have roads, but aircraft can’t operate 24 hours a day. They have difficulty operating in adverse wind conditions, for example, or at night conditions and so on,” Nehring said.

According to a recent Stanford University study, about 84 percent of the 300,624 wildfires in California over the last decade occurred in high-risk areas, “in the wildland–urban interface, where wildfires pose the greatest threat to human life.”

“Wildfires are a critical part of some ecosystems, but the vast majority in the U.S. are human-caused. Many of them originate in the same hotspots, such as roadsides, campgrounds and remote electrical lines, time after time,” according to Rob Jordan for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Meawhile, PG&E is spending about $2.4 billion a year to comply with Senate Bill 100. The legislation, enacted in 2018, requires PG&E to help fund renewable energy sources, such as solar- and wind-generated power. The state’s goal is to have 100 percent of the state’s electricity supply renewable by 2045.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, (R-Tehama) and Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) contends PG&E’s money would be better spent on fire prevention, according a recent media release.

“There is no doubt that PG&E’s mismanagement is the primary culprit in these devastating fires and PSPS events. But policies coming out of the State Capitol that distract from these primary objectives only make matters worse,” said Gallagher in a statement.

“Dollars spent on forestry management have been found to do more to reduce carbon than other measures. Science shows that redirecting funding to forestry management gets us a better bang for our buck in carbon reduction.”

Former Gov. Jerry Brown was also chided by Trump regarding forest management and ended up quietly signing two legislative bills aimed at fixing the most egregious errors in the state’s fire management policies before he left office.

Not only does the state have to do more to remove sources of ignition, but individual homeowners should also do more to prevent fire from spreading, “whether that means getting pine needles out of the gutters or ensuring you don’t have a wooden fence that comes right up to your house or that you don’t build a shed right up against the house,” Nehring said.

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