Smoke on the Horizon: Failed California Fire Prevention Setting Up Terrible Fire Season

By Brandon Ristoff
July 13, 2021

In a recent investigation by CapRadio, Gavin Newsom was found to have misled the public with his progress on his wildfire prevention efforts. How big of a deal is this? Aren’t wildfires just a force of nature or an act of God? Isn’t climate change going to make fires worse anyway? How much did Newsom’s lack of effort in wildfires matter?

The California Tinderbox

According to Shawn Regan of the Property and Environment Research Center, federal forest management for decades has solely been focusing on fire suppression. But merely doing fire suppression creates a build up of “fuel loads,” which allows for greater opportunities for longer and more massive fires. Regan cites a U.S. Forest Service study, which said that the most important factor in determining fire severity is the fuel loads, followed by climate, weather, and topography. Shaver Lake is a perfect example of where using controlled burns to reduce fuel loads, limited the strength of the 2020 Creek Fire. 

The solution is forest restoration through thinning forests and controlled burns that allows for some of the excess fuel loads to be removed without threatening buildings or homes, etc. So while Newom can’t exactly end forest fires in California, there is a lot he can accomplish to at least reduce the severity of these fires.

Newsom’s Failed Projects

During his first day in office as governor, he created 35 “critical” projects to help deal with the fire problems of California, with the goal of protecting 200 communities “vulnerable to wildfire.” In a 2020 press release, Newsom declared victory and said Cal Fire treated 90,000 acres and finished 34 out of 35 projects. But, it turned out Cal Fire only treated 11,399 acres, according to CapRadio’s analysis. Newsom might as well have brought out George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner. Newsom’s few fuel breaks achieved very little and did not contribute much to stopping the 2020 wildfires, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Along with other factors, Cal Fire declared the 2020 California wildfire season as a “record-setting year” and “the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history.”

So what was Newsom’s solution for the terrible 2020 fire season? He has proposed $1.2 billion in wildfire resilience towards the new budget. After the CapRadio exposé, Newsom decided to add an additional $500 million for wildfire prevention. 

The Drought

But it is going to get worse for Newsom this year because of the drought. Remember the top contributors to fires the U.S. Forest Service mentioned earlier, the dry weather and climate as a result of the drought are going to make wildfires worse and we have no control over that (at least in the short term). The Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center has commented on the incredibly low fuel moisture content in the San Jose region, declaring “Fire Season 2021 is looking grim.” Plus, according to the University of Nebraska’s U.S. Drought Monitor, 100% of California is in at least some degree of drought.

While there are many factors of wildfires that are outside of the governor’s control, Newsom does have some power to reduce the severity of forest fires. Newsom’s failure in investing in wildfire prevention, failure for not following through on his thirty-five projects during a terrible drought is setting the spark for another terrible wildfire season.

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Brandon Ristoff is a policy analyst for the California Policy Center.

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