California

California's Political Leaders Made Wildfire Season Worse

Firefighting resource shortages are caused by a legislature that is more interested in preserving union wages than in creating a firefighting system that works for the public.

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A few years ago, I blithely drove toward the Humboldt redwood forests across the coastal ranges without checking the morning road updates. Let's just say that moving along in a small metal box with fires raging on both sides of Highway 20 gives one a new appreciation of the perilous work firefighters do to contain such blazes.

As another grueling fire season grips California, I understand growing concerns about a widely reported lack of firefighting resources. Although structure fires and, especially, paramedic calls comprise the bulk of calls to local fire departments, there's no question that arid California needs a boisterous system for battling blazes in its expansive forests. Wildfires are as predictable as the rising sun, but the state doesn't do a great job preparing for them.

"More than 930,000 acres have burned so far in Northern and Central California—an area larger than the land mass of Rhode Island—with little containment, in part because firefighting resources are stretched beyond capacity by the number of blazes," according to a report last week in the Los Angeles Times. The Ocean State would barely make a decent-sized county here, but that's still an incredible amount of tinder.

The article noted that California officials have had to make "tough choices on which (wildfires) to fight" and that "officials said they were being turned down for state help and left to beg equipment and manpower from volunteers and local agencies." State officials have little choice but to allow some amazing forestlands, including redwood groves, to burn to the ground.

Most of the ongoing debates about firefighting center on broader environmental and regulatory issues. Predictably, climate-change activists blame global warming. "Temperatures rose about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit statewide while precipitation dropped 30 percent since 1980," according to a Scientific American article in April about a Stanford University study. Researchers blame this heat rise for an increase in the days in which fire risk is at the highest.

Others blame California's forest-management policies. "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," argued former Orange County Assemblyman Chuck Devore in Forbes last year.

Still others say the state's heavily regulated insurance system, which limits the ability of insurers to price fire policies at the market rate, subsidizes home construction in heavily wooded areas. There also are myriad disputes relating to electrical lines, and the liability laws that govern responsibility when those lines spark a wildfire. I'm more focused on a nuts-and-bolts governance problem—one that is standard fare with all government services.

Because agencies are monopoly institutions, funded by tax proceeds and mandatory fees, they do a terrible job allocating the resources that they receive. In the private sector, companies that do a lousy job go out of business. In the public sector, agencies that perform poorly or inadequately lobby for more money—so they continue with business as usual.

Frankly, union power drives state and local firefighting policies. The median compensation package for firefighters has topped $240,000 a year in some locales. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighters earn less, but their packages still total nearly $150,000 a year. The number of California firefighters who receive compensation packages above $500,000 a year is mind-blowing.

Obviously, if the state spends scarce resources in this manner, it will have fewer resources to hire additional firefighters and buy equipment that's now in short supply. After one particularly bad fire season, an acquaintance told me that we should pay firefighters "anything." The state has indeed taken that approach, and look where it's gotten us. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the nation's firefighters, including in the town where I live, do this tough work on a volunteer basis.

Any politician who tries to improve how firefighting services are provided, or to help communities get their raging compensation costs under control, runs up against a special-interest juggernaut that's as challenging as a three-alarm office fire. For instance, this newspaper group has detailed the outrageous pushback that Placentia faced from chiefs and unions as it created a new department to provide better and less costly services for residents.

Opponents cited safety concerns, but opposition was really about compensation given that Placentia's model offers a cost-saving—but generous—retirement plan and outsources paramedic services to a private company. Even as legislators bemoan the current resource problems, they recently supported, on a bipartisan basis, a union-backed pension bill (Assembly Bill 2967) that effectively prohibits other cities from following Placentia's approach.

We all appreciate the work that firefighters do, especially during another grueling fire season, but we shouldn't forget that firefighting resource shortages are caused by a legislature that is more interested in preserving union wage levels than in creating a firefighting system that works best for the public.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

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  3. I don’t know whether there are more fires in CA than there used to be, but it certainly seems like there are more. When I grew up there, the Marble Cone fire was the ‘big one’ that everyone talked about years later. Now, there are a good dozen that have dwarfed it. Decent article, Mr. Greenhut.

    In other news, the leading suspect in the death of the Patriot Prayer member in Portland, Oregon, was himself killed last night by police trying to arrest him. Good, even though this will kick off yet another bout of riots.

    1. I don’t know about size, but fires were a seasonal event in Southern California. The area is mostly savanna. The hills burned every year. The difference is there were fewer homes in those hills.

      1. exactly Rat same fires just more homes and more media. Also
        1. Redwoods bark are vary fire resistant they burn but only the smallest are destroyed
        2. certain pine trees seeds will not open without fire its, they evolved that way.
        3. loggers used to put out fall fires since they had tractors there now with so little logging allowed fewer tractors to put out the fire.
        4. I remember the 49er fire in 1988 every tractor in town was put to use, for some reason don’t do that anymore

      2. The other difference is that the fires were out in a day or two, because there wasn’t so much fuel, and there were firebreaks.

    2. In other news, the leading suspect in the death of the Patriot Prayer member in Portland, Oregon, was himself killed last night by police trying to arrest him. Good, even though this will kick off yet another bout of riots.
      I hear it was a mostly peaceful encounter.

    3. The Portland suspect who was killed, Michael Forest Reinoehl, was a white guy. No riots for him.

    4. Apparently Michael Reinoehl was killed only a couple hours after having an interview with Vice. In which I’m hearing he admitted to having done the crime.

      What do you want to bet the feds were watching the local lefty news outlets?

      1. “What do you want to bet the feds were watching the local lefty news outlets?”

        Or the location of said news outlet guy’s cell phone. Or, to really stir the pot, insinuate the Vice reporter intentionally gave up the guy’s location… Is Sean Penn still worried about El Chapo’s guys looking for him?

        Good arrest. Even better result. Now round up the others involved in what is looking more and more like a purposeful assassination, and not just something that happens when two gangs get together.

        1. I think I know which group is the Sharks and which is the Jets.

          1. The soundtrack to this one isn’t as good though. And no Rita Moreno either.

            Plausible deniability has just entered the game: https://mobile.twitter.com/AtlantaLiberal/status/1301749551049535488

            Which says, “4 chan is claiming they identified his location using the Vice footage & sent to the police.” Shia LaBeouf is nodding, sadly.

    5. From what I heard, antifa showed up to “mourn” his death and were broken up by Portland police shortly thereafter.

      1. Portland police finally found their balls? It really must be getting close to the Election.

        That’s an even bigger story than this one guy deciding to go out in a cloud of gunsmoke.

        1. That’s what I was thinking. I guess having his condo almost burned down is what it took for the Portland mayor to start cracking down on peaceful protests.

        2. Nevermind, I was hoodwinked by a clickbaity title. Doesn’t look like Portland police were any tougher last night than they have been.

        3. They should have treated it like a Chicago funeral and do a drive by

        4. The OPD was federalized, so now the rioters attacking them will be facing federal charges instead of allowing Portland’s DA to let them all free the next day.

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    6. I suggest you check out 1988 in the West. Thousands of lightning started fires covering the western US is a periodic event. The August Complex fire is several fires in Mendocino & Glenn Counties. The biggest one is burning in an area of the Mendocino National Forest adjacent to the Mendenhall Complex fire that
      burned in 1988. That fire was lightning strike caused and burned from just after Labor Day to well into November until the winter rains snuffed it. There is a picture on the front page of the SF Chronicle that shows a panoramic view of the fire as it burned down a ridge toward the North Shore of Lake Pillsbury. At the base of the ridge is a development with a few hundred residences.
      In 1988 a lot of Yellowstone Park burned due to lightning caused fires. The firefighting was concentrated on protecting structures. The fires weren’t out until snowfall.

  4. This article is nonsense – to suggest that the government causes problems and then proposes solutions that make the problems worse is to suggest that legislators aren’t the smartest people in the world, able to weigh in on all subjects from microbiology to macroeconomics, from business management to cheese production, from aerospace to zoology – there’s nothing they don’t know everything about.

    1. Who are you and what did you do with Tony?

  5. “California’s Political Leaders Made Wildfire Season Worse”

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  6. “California’s Political Leaders Made Wildfire Season Worse”

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  7. Frankly, union power drives state and local firefighting policies. The median compensation package for firefighters has topped $240,000 a year in some locales.

    I’m going to suggest a very non-libertarian solution for this problem – If the R’s take Congress, bail the state out. With R’s and the remaining sane D’s, major strings could be attached to bring wages/spending/pensions/taxes down to a respectable level, and keep things like this from happening again. CA gets the fiscal discipline it needs, and local pols get the political cover they need to make it happen.

    My rationale is that sanity will not come from within the state, and if the D’s ever get a supermajority across the board, bailouts won’t have any controls placed on them.

    1. CALITARP … sounds Bushy lol

  8. “climate-change activists blame global warming”
    Bullshit. We are still living within the acceptable temperature range as decreed by Science.
    Got a problem with things like fires and hurricanes today? Focus on mitigation

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    2. yeah, temperatures are slightly higher than normal. they’re not so hot that things spontaneously catch on fire.

      the drought is more to blame, but California has droughts now and then.

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  11. While it’s true the state is burning and we have some of the worse roads, schools and a onerous government-employee pension fund we can at least say we have some of the highest taxes gasoline taxes, sales taxes and income of anywhere in the country.

    We all know that paying a lot of taxes is patriotic even if the money is flushed down the toilet. California a very patriotic state.

    1. Your spell-checker is busted.

      There’s not supposed to be an “R” in “pathetic.”

  12. An excellent article from ProPublica …

    “They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?
    This is a story about frustration, about watching the West burn when you fully understand why it’s burning — and understand why it did not need to be this bad.”

    https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen

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  17. Most suburban fire departments are actually ambulance services with a sideline of occasional fire fighting. In my small city 85% of their work is ambulance calls, 12% is responding to emergencies(car wrecks, chemical spills…)and 3% actually involves fire fighting. It’s a racket with great PR. Let’s not forget 90% of pay in retirement after 30 years, 12 sick days, 13 paid holidays, 3 personal days and at least 4 weeks vacation.
    Our fire chief earns a mere $450,000 and the average firefighter $225,000, average retirement pay is $128,000.
    This is in a community where the average family income is $78,000…. most families have two or more earners.

  18. It doesn’t even bother me that salaries are high for firefighters. It’s a dangerous job and few can qualify physically. But a lot of the state’s financial resources (i.e. taxpayer funds) are going to pay retired state workers from all the different bureaucracies pensions that are overly generous and granted to retirees who are way too young.

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