(KPIX 5) — California’s devastating wildfires have been fueled by drought, heat and what Calfire calls missed opportunities to clear overgrown forests.
Controlled burns, fuel load, vegetation management – these are buzz words being thrown around the state capital right now. While the state is making all that a priority, the fact of the matter is it hasn’t for decades and we are dealing with the consequences.
The new normal California faces is a year-round fire season. But if you ask any fire official, these flames are fueled by more than hotter, drier weather. They’re also fueled by unchecked growth.
“After aggressively suppressing fires for the last 100 years we have put our forests in a state of peril,” said Calfire Chief Thom Porter.
As a result, our communities are also in peril. It’s a situation largely of our own making, says Calfire.
By abstaining from controlled burns year after year, unchecked growth has multiplied, dried out and created a tinderbox. The overgrowth has fueled deadly, out-of-control wildfires like the Carr Fire near Redding that took the lives of a four- and five-year-old.
That same fire killed two firefighters and injured three from Marin County when flames hit a big path of dry, overgrown brush.
“Prescribed burns alone will not stop that, but it is a tool that we can use to reduce the effect of those large fires,” said Porter.
Calfire currently has a goal of burning 20,000 acres a year, a goal put into place in 2016.
Last year.. Calfire came close with 19,000 acres control-burned. But two years ago, only 13,000 acres were burned while the previous three years each saw only around 3,000 acres burned.
“If we had made this investment 10 or 20 years ago we would have seen – in some areas – smaller, less damaging fires.”
Part of that has been a funding and resource issue, Calfire says. But it’s also come from pushback.
“There’s more fire in the landscape than the shrublands, the native shrublands, can tolerate,” said Richard Halsey, Director of the California Chaparral Institute. “So anything less than every 30 years, what starts happening is the native shrubs start disappearing and they get replaced by more flammable grasses.”
Gov. Jerry Brown has created a forest management task force, trying to get everyone on the same page.
“There is friction,” said Porter. “Every agency has their goals and mission, and some of those are a little bit counter to each other.”
“In the Sierra Nevada in the forests, they have missed some fire cycles. So controlled burns in those areas [are] a good thing,” said Halsey. “But what happens is people the problem is people misapply that idea everywhere on the planet, and they blame all these fires on overgrown vegetation. And that’s just not the case.”