Why Isn't California Safer From Wildfires?

An environmental law keeps public agencies from reducing wildfire fuel.


It's been four years since the North Bay Fires in California devastated Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino, and three years since Paradise was nearly wiped off the map. Until last year, 2017 was the largest wildfire season on record, with more than 1.5 million acres burned in the wake of six years of drought.

This past year blew that record away—2020 was the largest wildfire season in California's recorded history, with 4.2 million acres burned by 10,000 wildfires.

The severity of the 2020 fire season and the number of forest fires that move from the floor up to the canopy are clear evidence that we have not done enough. Our forests are not healthy, and lives and property continue to be at risk.

We know all this. Wildfire risk is a top concern of fire agencies, legislators, and residents alike. So why aren't we safer?

The biggest hurdle is the well-intentioned California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which introduces layers of uncertainty and complication, holding up much of the fire prevention work identified after 2017.

Fires are a function of weather, topography, and fuel. We have control over only one of these: how much fuel there is to burn. Over 100 years of continuous fire suppression have disrupted the natural fire cycles of California's forests. Tons of underbrush, dead trees, and drought-starved vegetation that would naturally be cleared by wildfire have continued to accumulate. About 11.2 million people in California live in or near forests in what's called the wildland-urban interface (WUI), more than in any other state.

After the devastation of the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons, fire agencies in high-risk areas got to work identifying fuels reduction projects that would prevent or lessen the effects of the next fires. Vegetation management is a balance—no one wants zero risk of fire at the cost of a bare landscape. Perhaps now the community would be willing to tolerate more of these projects than before in order to make a difference.

But before a public agency can start a fuels reduction project, whether it is simply limbing up trees or creating a shaded fuel break in open space, it must comply with CEQA.

Enacted in 1970, CEQA requires analysis and public disclosure of environmental impacts of "projects." Any alteration to the landscape that is discretionary—even mandating that property owners pick up dead tree limbs—could be considered a project under CEQA.

For example, a fire agency determines that a ridgetop fuel break would prevent a fire from spreading to the homes nearby. Implementing this is not a simple process. First, the agency must define the project and determine whether it can be considered exempt under one of several categories or statutes. There may also be exceptions to the exemptions. If the project is not exempt, the agency performs an Initial Study to determine potential impacts, whether those impacts are significant, and whether they can be mitigated. If so, it can prepare a Negative Declaration or a Mitigated Negative Declaration. If it can't do that, it must produce a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Following through to a complete EIR is a time-consuming and costly process, ranging from $200,000 to millions of dollars over multiple years. It is impossible to budget or plan for this process without some level of scoping and detailed analysis by a CEQA expert.

A vegetation management project tends to cover a larger project area than a development project, so the cost to analyze the impacts will tend toward the higher side of the range. There is generally more work to be done than there are funds, so the CEQA compliance costs will reduce the reach of funds meant for prevention work, evacuation planning, and community outreach.

Even completing a thorough EIR, as the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection did with its California Vegetation Treatment Program (CalVTP), doesn't protect agencies from lawsuits.

Fire prevention officers are not trained in CEQA analysis. Some agencies, like those in Marin County, are considering hiring full-time staff with expertise in navigating CEQA, but many agencies don't have the funds for that. Wildfire fuels reduction has gotten the attention of local activists, who fear fire agencies are out to denude the landscape without heed to habitats, nesting seasons, or the natural beauty of the landscape. This is what CEQA was meant to address, but the concerns of impacts from fuels reduction work must be balanced against the catastrophic effect of a megafire on the landscape.

The state government is well aware that CEQA needs reform. Former Gov. Jerry Brown called reforming CEQA "the Lord's work," but eventually threw up his hands. CEQA is a favorite tool for labor and anti-development groups looking to block a development project, so legislators are leery of wading into serious reform. A stadium project is more likely to be statutorily exempt from CEQA than a wildfire fuels reduction project. Working around this stumbling block, Gov. Gavin Newsom fast-tracked 35 wildfire prevention projects in 2019, and each year there is a scramble to get projects on this coveted list.

Newsom just approved $80 million in emergency funds to bring on additional firefighters to bolster fuels management and wildfire response. Agencies can't take full advantage of these efforts and funds if they can't get projects through the CEQA process.

Newsom and the legislature need to take on reforms to CEQA—not for development, but for wildfire prevention. Allowing simple fuels reduction projects to be exempt from CEQA would be a great first step. Crucial reforms may not be as scary as some politicians think. Labor groups are not likely to oppose exemptions that have nothing to do with development.

Fire season has already begun this year. Today, nearly all of California is in moderate to severe drought conditions. The political will is there. Now all we need is reform to allow fire agencies to do the work we all pray gets done before the next megafire.

NEXT: Leave Walgreens Alone. They’re Doing a Better Job Than the FDA and the CDC.

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  3. California wants nature to be as nature is intended to be, only without all those negative horrible things that nature does to humanity without even a single fuck given.

    So, in short, morons that don’t understand that they’re reaping exactly what they’ve sown.

  4. the well-intentioned California Environmental Quality Act

    A trip down that road ends up being surrounded by fire.

    1. Ok, that was hilarious.

    2. thisisfine.jpg

      1. But, more seriously, if I take a baby by the ankle and dunk him head first in the creek to get him clean, do I still get credit for having the good intentions of cleanliness and hygeine?

        Tens of millions of acres of literal scorched earth over the course of a decade, multiple towns nearly vaporized… exactly how bad do you have to fuck shit up before your intentions no longer count?

        It’d be interesting to see the comparison of total acres destroyed, property destroyed, people killed, and people displaced by the wildfires relative to nuclear “disasters”. Paradise alone is comparable to Pripyat.

    3. lolz

  5. Better question why is California a raging shitpile of garbage – democrats.

    1. Actually, Democrats who live in really big cities, studied English, psychology, or social science and believe they know all about nature and stuff because they feel deeply. Any law that demonstrates the depth of their feelings about any subject will get support because – you guessed it – it makes them feel good about themselves. If the law makes things worse, then the law must be doubled down.
      Feelings are what matter most.

  6. “Why Isn’t California Safer From Wildfires?”

    Here is a clue:
    I collaborated with the local Fire Safe Council in CA just before I got burned out. There were an estimated 30.000 to 50,000 diseased, dead, or otherwise “problematic trees” in their service area. The grant they received to address this problem was for something over $30,000 — to remove 90 trees. Ninety.

    I spent $7,200 to remove such trees on my own property (25 trees), including a couple of acres of brush removal on my neighbor’s property, to form a “defensible space” between my home and the fuel. In the end, of course, it did no good at all.

    A combination of poor land-management on the State and Local level, as well as poor wild-fire-prevention practices by most, or a least way too many, private land-owners, will basically doom CA for at least several more decades of wide-spread, destructive fires.

    I moved to a more habitable area NOT located in CA.

    1. Oops, I left out FEDERAL mismanagement.

  7. Let me guess: the answer is Democrats, but the article doesn’t mention them even once.

    1. You are close – it was Trump, only Trump, and completely Trump.

      1. Also, Republicans didn’t fight hard enough to prevent the pork spending that created the CEQA and the unprincipled, anti-abortion freaks will drop any pretense of opposing spending when it comes time to fight the next round of forest fires.

  8. Hey! Let’s just let All of the Socialist State of California burn to the ground — sacatomatoes, sanfrisco, lostangelus, sandiego & all towns & cities in between & around! Then we can start over from the ground up & have a better state — with citizens that are interested in governing properly instead of stupidly like guv nuisance & the previous guv of color, brown. ????????

  9. Hey! Let’s just let All of the Socialist State of California burn to the ground — sacatomatoes, sanfrisco, lostangelus, sandiego & all towns & cities in between & around! Then we can start over from the ground up & have a better state — with citizens that are interested in governing properly instead of stupidly like guv nuisance & the previous guv of color, brown. ????????

  10. I note that the article does not list one instance where CEQA was used to stop a forest management practice that then led to one of the recent forest fires. Climate changes such as droughts coupled with a corporation’s (PG&E), profit driven malfeasance is the cause of most fires. CEQA might be hard but it is not impossible as seen by fact that Governor got 25 projects through. The truth is the big shooters that control the content of this site simply don’t like CEQA.

    1. The article isn’t about the cause but the extent. Lightning causes most wildfires but the amount of destruction is controlled by us humans.

    2. You are apparently ignorant of the fact that PG&E can’t spend a dollar without approval of the state Public Utilities Commission. The “Puke” decides how much is spent, and for what.

      PG&E wanted to clear transmission line right of ways. PUC diverted that money to “Green” projects, and ordered studies done on which clearance was actually vital, in order to help the state decide which to approve. They had not yet decided by the time that Paradise burned.

    3. The biggest problem is Southern California’s massive overpopulation that has wrecked the aquifers, not climate change. Lack of groundwater has led to tree die off and dried the canopies. It has increased the ground fuel from dry plants, fallen trees, etc. It would take centuries of rainfall and water infiltrating the soil to restore the water CA pumped out and drank in the last 50 years. This continuously makes every wildfire worse than the last. They’re doomed because they can’t break that cycle.

  11. 4.2 million acres burned

    Yeah, ok but what’s that in useful units? How about we standardize on either the state of Rhode Island or use Washington DC. So 4.2 million acres is about 5.4 Rhode Islands or 96 D.C.s. Obviously more if we just want to consider the land area of those two places but we gotta start somewhere and it wouldn’t surprise me if Cali couldn’t find a way to make water burn.

  12. The sad truth about PG&E is that not all the money The PUC approves for line maintenance and vegetation management is spent for those purposes. This has been documented in many lawsuits. Ever hear of the management incentive program? You don’t spend your budget, you get a bonus.

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