Feel the Burn: To Avoid Year-Round Wildfires, California Needs to Up Its Forestry Game

By Glen Martin

If you have the feeling that “wildfire season” is anything but seasonal these days, you’re right. Drought and climate change are combining to make wildfires a year-round phenomenon in the Golden State and much of the West, a trend that already is changing the character of our forests and straining government budgets.

“The fires just keep coming,” observes Scott Stephens, a professor at Cal’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on wildfire science. “Southern California has had a year-round fire season for a while, but now it appears that’s drifting north. A couple of years ago around Christmas, there was a wildfire on Cobb Mountain [in Lake County], which is usually a very wet area. Change is underway.”

And in Southern California, says Stephens, that change is both observable and alarmingly rapid.

“I was on Mount Laguna in the Cleveland National Forest [in San Diego, Orange, and Riverside Counties] not long ago, looking at areas where Jeffrey pine had been replanted,” Stephens says. “Jeffrey pine predominated in most of the forests on Mt. Laguna, but the planted areas I was shown had failed completely.”

The U.S. Forest Service managers who were overseeing the project told Stephens that the frequency of the fires on Mt. Laguna and the shifting climate had made the area unsuitable for Jeffrey pine.

“They don’t think they’re going to get the conifers back,” said Stephens. “It was clear to them that the area was shifting to mixed hardwood forests [which can tolerate drier, warmer conditions and greater fire frequency than coniferous forests].”

Indeed, says Stephens, vast portions of California’s coniferous forests, from the Sierra to the coast ranges, are likely to shift to hardwoods and grassy savannas in coming decades.

“Ecotones are changing, and it’s going to have huge impacts on wildlife diversity, carbon sequestration potential, recreation—anything associated with wildlands,” Stephens says. “The forests that our grandchildren’s children inherit are likely to be very different than the ones we have today.”

Contributing to the problem is the way we fight wildfires and fund wildfire fighting, Stephens says, observing that the emphases in wildfire combat have changed in recent years. A few decades ago, fire-fighters could employ landscape-scale strategies to control fires. In some cases, fires could even be allowed to burn, or merely directed instead of expunged. This was especially the case if the fires were meandering and not particularly fierce. Such low-level fires actually improve forests, weeding out thin, diseased, and scraggly trees, eliminating insect pests, and returning nutrients to the soil.

“The problem has been the explosive growth in interface [suburban intrusion into forested areas],” Stephens says. “Now wildfire fighters have to devote much or even most of their time and effort to protecting property. That’s extremely expensive.”

Case in point: A month ago, Stephens was driving through the Sierra foothills near Shingle Springs. “Suddenly, I saw retardant bombers, a spotter plane and a helicopter—but no smoke,” he says. “Then I turned a corner, and I saw this little fire, maybe a half-acre in size. But a lot of people were on it, because there were about a hundred houses within a half-mile. Fire managers had been forced to put all that equipment, all those people, spend all that money, on a tiny fire because of the potential consequences.”

And the shifts in wildfire priorities are crippling wildland management agencies. This year, said Stephens, “… 52 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget will go to fire-fighting. That’s the first time the fire-fighting budget has ever gone over 50 percent. In the early 1990s, it was below 20 percent. And every dollar that is spent on fire-fighting is a dollar that can’t be spent on forest restoration, wildlife and fisheries programs, recreation, and infrastructure. Things have gotten so bad that there’s an effort in Washington to move the largest wildfires—about 2 to 3 percent of the annual total—from the Forest Service budget to FEMA’s budget.”

And yet, things don’t have to be this way. Unlike stemming atmospheric carbon loading, which would demand a global response that would be difficult in the extreme to implement, California’s coniferous forests could be at least partially protected with some basic changes in land use policy. First, says Stephens, the explosive growth in interface must be controlled. That’s a job for the counties and state.

“The counties are allowing, even encouraging, development near or in our forests,” says Stephens. “The more growth we have in interface areas, the worse the problem will be. We have to change that trajectory, and the counties in particular have to play a responsible role.”

Second, people who build houses in the woods should pay for protecting them. As things stand, Stephens observes, the costs of protecting interface areas are borne by taxpayers at large. Somehow, someway, money must be diverted from fire-fighting budgets back to forest management. Because active management of the forests is the only way to get the fire genie back in the bottle. Currently, our forests are as volatile as gasoline because of the poor management policies of the past. Clear-cut logging and replanting has left vast areas stocked with excessive numbers of young closely-spaced trees that are as flammable as tinder. Excessively aggressive fire suppression, particularly in the early to mid-20th century, exacerbated the problem: If every fire is extinguished, the forests become choked with highly flammable deadwood, brush and “doghair” timber.

What is needed, says Stephens, are aggressive thinning and “prescriptive” fire programs. Using chain saws, heavy equipment and low-level fires to thin timber, we would essentially fireproof our wildlands by re-creating the forests of yesteryear, forests that were characterized by large, well-spaced trees that were resistant to catastrophic burning. And in the process, we would be providing jobs for thousands of young people anxious to earn paychecks in the outdoors.

“But we can’t do that if we spend 40 to 70 percent of our forest budgets on fire suppression,” Stephens says. “Unless we get suppression costs in line and start investing in active management, we won’t get ahead of this issue. We have perhaps 30 years to do it before our forests change irrevocably. And it can be done—we know what to do, and how to do it.”

Filed under: Law + Policy
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I strongly favor the idea that the folks who choose to build in the interface area should be responsible for paying the cost of protecting their homes from wildfires.
Currently, there is a mandatory “Fire Prevention Fee” that is charged to certain residence in Amador County who live in the rural wooded areas. I wouldn’t oppose the fee except that is does not go towards fire prevention, maintenance or fire equipment. It pays for fire prevention information/pamphlets, paperwork per our local Amador County Cal-Fire staff. IMO, Saying “folks who choose to build in the interface area should be responsible for paying the cost of protecting their homes from wildfires” is like saying people who send their children to public school should be solely responsible for maintaining school buildings. Fires happen in the incorporated areas of California. More and more home fires in populated cities are due to drug growing and manufacturing operations. Should city residents incur a special fire tax fee and have it go towards drug prevention pamphlets? Having said that, I do have insurance and I do maintain my property while trying to maintain the ecosystem. My property is a haven for bees, birds and other wildlife. Anybody who lives here knows the risks even with property maintenance especially these last few very dry years. How about offering a solution for fire prevention and maintaining the ecosystem using the “Fire Prevention Fee” tax.
CalFire has practically no system for accounting and fiscal transparency. But more to the point, CalFire and the Department of Forestry have no public transparency regarding control burn schedules. If all of the dangerous transition areas were mapped with a 20+ year continuous burn schedule, then the public could monitor the performance of those activities. For the more developed areas a brush dump site is required with either massive compost capacity (such as a dry canyon) or a public brush dump with an annual burning on site.
please notify me via email when new articles on this topic are posted. Thanks
It is not true that increasing population density in interface areas is a threat. I have studied the data and found that in the early stages increased density does correspond to increased incidents, but in the later stages of development incidents of fire are reduced in geometric order. The real problem is fighting fires in the ‘middle’ stages of development, where it is difficult to determine if the areas are forest scenarios or urban scenarios: how and when are maps adjusted, how are duties transferred from CalFire to counties, etc. There is also a tremendous amount of insight that could be gained from better measures and studies of data. The data recording and reporting systems of CalFire have barely changed over the past century. CalFire has been asked to assume all kinds of duties in recent decades. Many of those organizational duties and responsibilities need to be split off from CalFire, and maybe even split off from the Department of Forestry or contracted out by the state or counties to private parties in a state-wide coordinated fashion. Government’s best role is to coordinate, not to control. Finally, the use of prescribed fire needs to be greatly expanded in California as it reduces air and water pollution, reduces the threat of wildfire, improves the health and usability of forests, and reduces the costs of fighting wildfire.
I agree with Mr. Leavenworth’s conclusions. I too have studied the data and it fully supports his conclusions. Ever since we founded this country we have built our homes in the forests. The introduction of suburban and urban areas has greatly changed our landscape, but it never altered the desire to live alone and in less densely populated environments. Over the years our countries population has migrated in and out of the cities pretty regularly as the age demographics have changed over time. But the main shift has been in the size of the single family homes. In the 80’s there was a marked shift in the development projects from small single family units, of approx 1200 sq.ft; at a cost of approx. $50,000 to $90,000, but with large grass yards in both the front and back, and good size buffers of usually fruit trees or hardwoods spaced appropriately around the sides, to larger more luxurious single family homes with garages, on basically the same size lots. The result, closely packed units with more fuel, no yards or very small. So no grass buffers. In order to give the same feeling of isolation the homes were pushed back as close as possible into the woods with long concrete driveways instead of dirt, so again less vegetation, less moisture. This was all done to maximize profits on any given piece of land. This shift in the construction business was drastic and all across the country. Cities traded small family friendly neighborhoods where people new there neighbors and watched out for them, for revenue from these projects. Usually if there was a zoning change required that was traded for a high density low cost(meaning as cheap as possible) urban housing project inside the towns city limits. I’m not saying this was good or bad but the results are plain to see for everyone. Crumbling and failing cities. Sub-standard construction on multi-family high density “project’s,” leading to slum lords and evictions, high crime, demolitions and graft and corruption at the highest levels of our government’s with no consequences. This has led to a mass exodus, from high crime areas to less populated areas. Add to that # 20+ million undocumented immigrants who want to avoid detection, and the pressure to move into undeveloped areas has increased. Rather than stopping building in the forest’s, as we have always done, we need to go back to what worked, smaller houses, closer knit communities, more buffer zones and better fixes for insect control and varmint control. Smart management of our National Forrest’s through proscribed burns, selective thinning, habitat renewal through introduction of native species and plant’s. Restrictions on landscaping of exotic ornamental’s that become invasive species. Harvesting of our replanted forest’s and removal of dead and diseased trees. The natural rhythms of our lives, dictate our desires for nature’s closeness. Young people tend to want the excitement and close companionship of an urban lifestyle. Middle age has been traditionally a time of procreation and building a family and security through financial independence. Twilight years tend to bring on a desire for remoteness and a reduction in the general pace of our life and surroundings. Owning property and a home is not only the desire of every American but it is the basis for wealth building and should be encouraged for our young. Large expensive homes are becoming impractical and unnecessary, and further and further out of reach for everyone. The United States Census states that the average square footage of a house is 2,598 square feet. At a cost of $427,000. A 4 fold increase in 40 years. The average house size has increased by more than 1,000 square feet in the last 40 years. Proper usage of available resources and sustainable environmental practice should not be used as a cudgel, but rather should be desired in conjunction with continued expansion and usage of our Federal Lands for the benefit of everyone. Not the closing of forest’s and wilderness areas to fit some unproven agenda to one, specific land use pattern. All areas are unique. Thank you.