What does it say when members of Congress from elsewhere are more serious about saving the state from future wildfire disasters than many of California’s own politically connected activists?
More than 4 million acres have burned so far in this year’s fire season, surpassing the 2018 total that had previously held the record. The Creek Fire alone has incinerated more than 320,000 acres. It’s now the largest wildfire in California history.
Put another way, “five of California’s 10 largest fires in modern history are all burning at once.”
At least, so far, the wildfires are not setting death records. Fatalities totaled 85 in 2018. This year 31 have lost their lives.
Wildfires are unavoidable. They’re part of nature, part of California’s landscape. But they should not have been allowed to become the existential threat they have now been for years. Blame the paralysis of action of a long-standing resistance to common-sense measures.
As California sweats through the worst wildfires in state history, the rest of the country is relatively unharmed. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of U.S. wildfires has remained constant since 1985. But somehow they’ve been growing in California since the mid-1980s. By 2020, half of the acreage burned in the country has been in this state though it makes up only 4.3% of the American landmass.
How has this happened? We can start with the state’s green obsession.
Environmentalists, says Edward Ring of the California Policy Center, have “litigated and lobbied to stop efforts to clear the forests through timber harvesting, underbrush removal, and controlled burns. Meanwhile, natural fires were suppressed and the forests became more and more overgrown,” he writes.
This effort has been in perpetual motion for some time. Environmentalists have a long history of blocking efforts that would limit the severity and damage of California wildfires. It’s the opinion of many that human intervention in nature, even when man is protecting himself from harsh elements, is an intolerable offense. Radical as they are, they nevertheless have strong allies within the state’s political class.
Among those friends is Gov. Gavin Newsom. But it would be unfair to say he’s wholly owned by environmental zealots. He deserves credit for using his emergency powers last year to approve removing dead and hazardous trees, clearing brush, cutting fire lines with bulldozers, and setting controlled burns. His order even suspended the environmental and regulatory reviews that had to be approved before fire-risk reduction projects could be started.
These are basics, though, and shouldn’t be applied only when an emergency arises.
While California burns – an evergreen headline if ever there was one – Washington, D.C., an entire continent away, is trying to help protect the state from itself.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Maria Cantwell of Oregon, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced last month the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020, which, in part, requires the “Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to use prescribed fire more frequently to preemptively burn off excess vegetation that can otherwise become tinder for out-of-control blazes,” says the Los Angeles Times.
Also from the Senate is a bill offered by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican. It includes “53 pages of solutions” but none are more important than the provision allowing “the export of unprocessed timber of dead and dying trees from federal land in California.”
There are as many as 129 million dead trees in this state. But environmental zealots, who have nearly invincible clout in California politics, don’t want them removed any more than they wish live timber to be cut. This is borderline madness – and we won’t say which side of the border – because, as GOP Rep. Tom McClintock, has pointed out: “Excess timber comes out of the forest one way or the other: it is either carried out or it burns out.”
Though deadly, and costly almost beyond comprehension, California’s wildfires are valuable to at least one group. As long as they burn hot enough and long enough to make global news, the eco-extremists will claim they are evidence that humans are overheating their planet. Millions of scorched acres are handy leverage in the green campaign against fossil fuels.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.