The mystery of Cal Fire: State agency not using cheap, effective tactic to promote wildfire safety

By Chris Reed
February 3, 2020

When Gov. Gavin Newsom took office in January 2019 — aware that 10 of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires had occurred since 2015 — he promised an “all of the above” approach to reducing the threat that fires poised to public safety and property in a hot, dry era.

In his first full day on the job, Newsom went to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) station in the heavily forested Lake Tahoe area to announce plans to seek an additional $105 million in the 2019-20 state budget to hire more firefighters, buy more  helicopters and launch an intense push to use technology such as satellite imaging and infrared sensors to better identify fire risks.

On Wednesday, the governor used an appearance at a forum in Sacramento to pat himself on the back after a 2019 wildfire season that was easily the quietest in a half-dozen years. “We did remarkably well because we’ve never been more prepared,” he declared. The governor noted his proposed 2020-21 budget included $100 million to promote “home hardening” efforts that make homes less likely to catch fire from the wind-blown embers that are often the main cause of property damage.

But left unaddressed was the fact that Cal Fire is failing to use a cheap, low-tech, common-sense tool to promote home safety that has worked well in Los Angeles County: sanctioning homeowners who don’t keep their gutters and yards free of dead or dying vegetation, debris and other combustible materials.

Last July, citing information obtained with a public records request, a San Diego Union-Tribune investigation found that in 2018, Cal Fire inspectors reported that 17,000 or the 128,000 properties they checked had dangerous conditions. If the conditions are not improved after three visits, homeowners can be fined a minimum of $1,000. But Cal Fire only issued 62 fines. 

The startlingly low number shows why noncompliance with “defensible space” laws is so common: The possibility of being punished for such defiance is remote. Cal Fire officials declined to be interviewed by the Union-Tribune about their approach to the 700,000 parcels they are tasked with monitoring.

By contrast, the newspaper found, the state’s most populous county — which handles its own fire safety inspections — had a much more aggressive approach. From 2011 to 2014, the Los Angeles County Fire Department issued more than 1,000 “defensible space” fines each year. Officials said this led to a sharp increase in compliance.

Whether this has had a dramatic effect on wildfire risks in Los Angeles County is impossible to easily determine. In late October and early November, the Getty Fire in the canyons in and around Brentwood destroyed 10 homes and burned 745 acres just a few miles from downtown Los Angeles. But it is simply a fact that the 4,751-square-mile county has suffered far less destruction than several smaller counties in Northern California since the spate of massive wildfires began in the Golden State in 2015.

Cal Fire’s failure to use the L.A. County approach looks even odder in the broader context of overall fire risk strategies. There are fierce debates over whether homes can be safely built in remote areas and over whether state and federal authorities should not respond to forest fires that don’t threaten life or property because such blazes are part of a natural cycle of forest health.

There are no such debates over the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of making homeowners keep their homes more safe. A Federal Emergency Management Association brochure notes the vital importance of creating “defensible space” in protecting not just individual homes and communities but in making it easier for firefighters to battle all kinds of blazes, not just those triggered by dry, gusty conditions or downed power lines.

So how is it possible that a state allegedly pursuing an “all of the above” approach to reducing fire risks doesn’t grasp that it is failing on a crucial front?

I have no idea. But here’s a thought: Instead of patting himself on the back on fire safety, Gov. Newsom should be reaching for the proverbial low-hanging fruit — and demanding that Cal Fire get serious about enforcing “defensible space” rules.

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Chris Reed is a contributing editor to California Policy Center, and an editorial writer and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisreed99.

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