Wildfires, climate change put California forests at tipping point

Many of the state’s 20th century policies do not work in today’s world

By Matt Dias and Julee Malinowski-ball

Published: March 8, 2022 at 5:15 a.m.

The last two years have been California’s most destructive fire seasons. Thirty-six people lost their lives, and more than 14,000 structures were destroyed or damaged. In addition, more than 7.3 million acres burned in California, which is larger than all of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties combined. To put it simply, California’s forest lands are in crisis.

Climate change is part of the problem. In six of the last 10 years, the state has been considered to be in a drought, with the 2020-21 rain season being the second driest in California history. The brush and trees are drier and more brittle with less rain, making them more susceptible to disease, insect infestations and fire. The lack of snowpack has allowed wildfires to burn longer and impact larger landscapes and communities.

Adding to California’s wildfire woes are fire suppression and prevention policies that are no longer applicable in many cases. After a multistate wildfire in 1910, the U.S. Forest Service established a 10 a.m. policy calling for all wildfires to be extinguished as soon as possible. The fire suppression led to thicker, more dense forests that generally would be thinned by naturally occurring wildfires.

Tree density and fuel loads are simply hazardous across most of the state, creating a greater risk for high-intensity wildfire. Exacerbating the problem was a lack of a cohesive forest management plan. As the California Policy Center highlights, “California’s misguided forest management practices included several decades of successful fire suppression, combined with a failure to remove all the undergrowth that results when natural fires aren’t allowed to burn.” Unfortunately, when original management plans were put in place, a lack of coordination and finger-pointing between local, state and federal agencies led to the disjointed implementation of policies.

Thankfully, former Gov. Jerry Brown, fire officials, university professors, forest specialists and fire scientists developed a common-sense plan to address California’s wildfire risks. The final project is known as the Venado Declaration, which calls for forest management and home hardening to reduce property loss, save lives and improve forest health.

The declaration also calls for six urgent actions:

  • Spending $5 billion annually from public and private sources to proactively manage our forest lands.
  • Building and supporting infrastructure to assist forest management from biomass facilities and sawmills to other uses for forest waste products.
  • Investing in new technologies to assist in planning and wood waste products.
  • Increasing the state’s capacity to conduct prescribed burns.
  • Creating jobs and training workers to aid in forest management and home safety.
  • Developing initiatives to promote home hardening and community wildfire protection.

To the credit of the Newsom administration, the governor’s proposed budget plan parallels the Venado Declaration policies. Historic investments of $1.5 billion have been made available in fire prevention actions, with another $1.2 billion proposed in this budget. This represents a baseline investment that the state needs to achieve annually. While the governor has also called for forest management, community hardening, repurposing of wood waste products and job training, more needs to be done to restore the health of our forests.

California’s forestlands are at a tipping point. Many of the 20th-century policies do not work in today’s world. California needs to listen to fire experts and sage leaders by dedicating resources to actively manage our forest lands to protect lives and property and ensure forest lands for the public to enjoy for years to come.

Matt Dias is president and CEO of the California Forestry Association. Julee Malinowski-Ball is executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance.