In the past two years, wildfires scorched 2.9 million acres in California, including five of the state’s 20 deadliest fires killing 131 people.
Newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rhetoric has been more balanced.
As with Brown before him, Newsom blames climate change for the fires, saying during the campaign last September that, “The science is clear — increased fire threat due to climate change is becoming a fact of life in our state. Drier, longer summers combined with unpredictable wet winters have created dangerous fire conditions.”
Claiming that climate change causes wildfires naturally leads to a demand for action, with Newsom promising an aggressive progressive pushback against the Trump Administration’s effort to cut red tape regarding vehicle mileage standards, power plant carbon dioxide emissions, and oil and gas extraction.
That’s politics. Governing often dictates practicality. Here Newsom appears set to do more to combat wildfires than the tentative half-measures signed into law by Brown. Newsom is calling for improved wildfire surveillance and warning systems, better urban planning, and helping property owners clear brush.
Regarding reducing the fuel load, in an interview four months ago, Newsom said that there are “Hundreds of millions of dead trees” in the state and that it cost his father $35,000 to clear “a small little patch of dead trees” on his property.
Newsom didn’t admit it, but the outrageous cost to remove a few dead trees from private land is a consequence of California’s Byzantine environmental regulatory patchwork.
This is California’s big secret: it’s not climate change that’s burning up the forests, killing people, and destroying hundreds of homes; it’s decades of environmental mismanagement that has created a tinderbox of unharvested timber, dead trees, and thick underbrush.
This dangerous situation attracted attention from President Donald Trump who, during the height of California’s wildfires last year insisted that “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.”
The irony is that forest management is so bad on public lands that a new report, ordered by the California legislature in 2010, shows that the portion of California’s National Forests protected from timber harvesting is now a net contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fires and trees killed by insects and disease.
Every year about 3.8 billion board feet of new timber grows in the Golden State, capturing almost one metric ton of CO2 per acre in the productive timberland areas. Trees grow until they die, burn, or get harvested. If harvesting declines, tree mortality and fires increase. It’s the tyranny of math.
In the early 1990s, a series of restrictions were placed on logging in the West to protect the Spotted Owl. As it turned out, nature was more complicated than expected, with owl numbers continuing to decline—even after the California timber harvest plummeted—due to predation from other raptors.
In the meantime, the harvest fell below the growth rate in the 1990s, to about 1.5 billion board feet per year over the past decade. The tree harvest on federal lands is now one-tenth of what it was in 1988, President Reagan’s last full year in office.
The California forest report draft concludes by observing that the “Current flux [of CO2] may not be sustainable without forest management!” while citing the challenge of “Aging of forests on federal lands.”
Unlike much of the American South and East, California has a distinct wet season, with Pacific storms rolling in by November or December and wrapping up by March. In even the wettest years (2016-17 was the wettest in 122 years) much of California is bone-dry by late fall. Thus, it isn’t climate change that sets the conditions for fires—it’s California’s natural weather pattern. Comparing acres burned in wildfires to weather and tree harvest data, there appears to be little link to climate—but a big connection to the growing forest fuel load, especially on government land.
Which brings us back to policy. If federal and state environmental policies continue to make it difficult and costly to harvest timber and manage the fuel load, then the wildfires will continue and they will be bigger and deadlier. This will, in due course, cause some politicians to blame the fires on climate change.
In the meantime, the timber harvest infrastructure is less than one-third of what it was 30 years ago, meaning that even if politicians were sincere in wanting to manage the public forests, there few people remaining to manage them.