The image of yet another California mountainside burning like an apocalyptic inferno has struck fear, horror, and empathy into any observer with a beating heart. Our first reaction is to offer our thoughts, prayers, and support. It’s the only human reaction that arises from such tragedy. But, once the shock begins to subside, if only a bit, it’s only fair that one turn their eyes towards the prevention of future fires, though it now seems an impossibility. It’s only right that the decisions of California’s and the nation’s lawmakers be parsed for error, because several decisions over the years have contributed to the intensity of these massive fires.
The Camp Fire, spurred on by abnormally strong winds and “critically dry conditions”, has now been designated as the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. At least 44 people have been declared dead, while at least 228 people remain missing, as of Tuesday morning. The Griffith Fire was the next most deadly fire in the state’s history, and it wreaked its havoc all the way back in 1933. There’s no denying that the fire, which continues to unleash its fury with no end in sight, is yet another in a string of blazes that have piled onto to what can only be considered an awful year for the people of the Golden State.
As a state that receives little rain and has suffered through chronic droughts, there is some level of inevitability to these disasters. Though the sparks that rapidly evolve into wildfires are often caused by humans, the natural conditions of the geographic region cause flames to spiral out of control so quickly and ferociously. Investigators have stated that they are still not certain what the acute causes of the Camp Fire or simultaneously burning Woolsey Fire are, though it has been suggested faulty electrical utility equipment could be to blame. This is the short view of the problem. When a longer view is adopted, it becomes clear that California’s legislatures and the U.S. Forest Service should not be let off the hook for bone-headed policy decisions that put political correctness over lives, homes, and businesses.
President Trump has come under fire for threatening to withdraw federal funds from the state due to poor forest management practices. As is not atypical, Trump’s tone was deaf, his timing was more than poor, and his method – Twitter – understandably rubbed many people the wrong way. But, in his core sentiment, he isn’t wrong. The blame falls on both federal policy and California’s decisions to protect the environment in a way that poses a great threat to Californians.
To start, consider the uncompromising federal policies that have put California at great risk for these sort of uncontrollable blazes. Passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was aimed at promoting domestic and international conservation. In practice, the Act imposes stringent restrictions on altering the habitat of animals listed as either ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened’. While noble in its intent, this law has compelled state authorities and private citizens against clearing dead trees, conducting controlled burns, and removing the debris that serves as combustible fuel when a fire does break out.
The National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1970, has had a similar impact. It is a ‘broad national framework for protecting our environment’, and fosters a hands-off approach to the environment that has also hampered efforts to weed out California’s forests of the dead, bark beetle-infested trees that have contributed significantly to the rapid spread of California’s blazes. These are national policies, mind you, but California, in all of its tree-hugging glory, has also embraced policies at the state level that are hurting efforts to prevent and control wildfires.
The state’s Timberland Conservation Program severely limits the ability to harvest timber from California’s forests, which cover one-third of the state’s land area. The justification for this policy makes it clear that protecting animals is its primary aim.
‘[Forests] are home to a diverse array of natural communities which include threatened and endangered species.’ (wildlife.ca)
The website for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also includes other justifications for the initiative, ranging from ‘sequestering carbon’ to ‘providing recreation opportunities’. Positive things, to be sure. But, notably unmentioned on the site is the downside of limiting the extraction of timber and the pruning of forests: when blazes break out, these dense forests filled with massive, dead and dying trees serve as fuel for the fire. This is the ultimate irony: in an attempt to protect the forests, these policies have made them more vulnerable to massive, uncontrollable wildfires that eradicate them completely. Even individuals who want to burn dead plant life from their lands face difficulties that would be unimaginable in most of the other 50 states.
‘To burn leaves and tree limbs, landowners must obtain air-quality permits from “local air districts, burn permits from local fire agencies, and potentially other permits depending on the location, size, and type of burn,” the LAO explained. “Permits restrict the size of burn piles and vegetation that can be burned, the hours available for burns, and the allowable moisture levels in the material.”’ (WSJ)
California’s state Legislative Analyst’s Office has pointed out the destructive, detrimental impact of well-intended yet uncritically composed environmental protection laws time and again. Each of their recommendations involve some form of liberalizing restrictions on burning dead plant matter and pruning forests. Naturally, the legislature has yet to take action. Sadly, the past year-plus of massive blazes, lost homes, and lost lives haven’t proven enough to lead to compromise – the hardcore environmentalist’s mentality is, after all, uncompromising.
While the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire are tragic, and the lives lost must not be treated flippantly, the ability to prevent these sort of outbreaks going forward depends on the willingness of the California legislature and environmental proponents to realize the folly of their views, and consider that protecting wildlife has come at the expense of the state’s human residents.