California needs to fight Wildfire with fire and stop building houses in the forests

Battalion chief with Cal Fire Jonathan Cox said the rise in the number of wildfires over the last several years has been “the new normal” in California.

There have been larger and more destructive fires year over year. It is obviously requiring additional resources not just from California but from throughout the United States to get ahead of it.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is the State of California’s agency responsible for fire protection in State Responsibility Areas of California totaling 31 million acres, as well as the administration of the state’s private and public forests.


Budget Act of 2016-2017    $1.862 billion
Wildland Fire Budget         $943 million
Emergency Fund               $424 million

In Dec 2017, the USDA Forest Service today announced that an additional 27 million trees, mostly conifers, died throughout California since November 2016, bringing the total number of trees that have died due to drought and bark beetles to an historic 129 million on 8.9 million acres. The dead trees continue to pose a hazard to people and critical infrastructure, mostly centered in the central and southern Sierra Nevada region of the state.

The USDA Forest Service will continue to focus on mitigating hazard trees and thinning overly dense forests. The Tree Mortality Task Force (TMTF) removed about 1 million trees in 2017.

There are also non-fire programs that protect watersheds and restore forests, making them more
resilient to wildfire and drought.

Thin out the forests and use prescribed fires

In 2015, Scott Stephens, a professor at Cal’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on wildfire science noted the shift to year-round wildfires in southern and northern California.

The U.S. Forest Service managers who were overseeing the project told Stephens that the frequency of the fires on Mt. Laguna and the shifting climate had made the area unsuitable for Jeffrey pine.

“They don’t think they’re going to get the conifers back,” said Stephens. “It was clear to them that the area was shifting to mixed hardwood forests [which can tolerate drier, warmer conditions and greater fire frequency than coniferous forests].”

Vast portions of California’s coniferous forests, from the Sierra to the coast ranges, are likely to shift to hardwoods and grassy savannas in coming decades.

A few decades ago, fire-fighters could use landscape-scale strategies to control fires. In some cases, fires could even be allowed to burn, or merely directed instead of expunged. This was especially the case if the fires were meandering and not particularly fierce.

There has been a large growth of residences in forested areas, which are more expensive to protect.

Fire-fighting budget has ever gone over 50 percent. In the early 1990s, it was below 20 percent. And every dollar that is spent on fire-fighting is a dollar that can’t be spent on forest restoration, wildlife and fisheries programs, recreation, and infrastructure.

California’s coniferous forests could be at least partially protected with some basic changes in land use policy. The explosive growth in housing must be controlled. People who build in the firezones need to be required to pay for their protection.

Forests are as volatile as gasoline because of the poor management policies of the past. Clear-cut logging and replanting has left vast areas stocked with excessive numbers of young closely-spaced trees that are as flammable as tinder. Excessively aggressive fire suppression, particularly in the early to mid-20th century, exacerbated the problem: If every fire is extinguished, the forests become choked with highly flammable deadwood, brush and “doghair” timber.

There needs to be aggressive thinning and “prescriptive” fire programs. Using chainsaws, heavy equipment and low-level fires to thin timber. Forests need large, well-spaced trees that were resistant to catastrophic burning.

Thinning is not a solution for much of the Sierra Nevada. Only 28 percent of the landscape can be mechanically thinned. The rest is too steep or remote. You cannot thin your way out of the problem. You’ve got to use fire. The 2014 interagency National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy calls for expanding the use of prescribed burns and letting more wildfires burn.

Pass the Disaster Recovery Reform Act

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) needs to be passed to increase pre-disaster mitigation against wildfires and earthquakes.

It costs less to prepare our communities than to help them recover. In general, every $1 spent on predisaster mitigation will save us $4 to $8 in costs avoided in recovery.

Some examples of how the DRRA helps better prepare and protect our communities:
• Expands mitigation funding for areas affected by a fire and makes funds available for local projects to
protect communities against wildfire, such as (Secs. 603 and 604):
o Vegetation management/fuel control
o Installation of fire-resistant roofing and other building materials
o Creation of fire buffers around vulnerable buildings
o Stabilization efforts in the wake of a fire to protect fire-affected areas against mudslides

32 thoughts on “California needs to fight Wildfire with fire and stop building houses in the forests”

  1. You do know California is basically a desert.?..I lived there for 20 years and it rained only in Feb.

  2. It is not as nearly as complicated as you imply. The most important thing is to keep a defensible space, fuel free 15-30′. Heat rises… energy at twice the distance.

  3. Yeah! The tide of public opinion has turned to include thinning and prescribed burning, even for the environmentalists! In 2002 during the Rodeo-Chediski Fire (469,000 acres burned) and in 2011 during the Wallow Fire (538,049 acres burned) environmentalists hampered industry and forest service from properly taking care of Arizona forests. However, the Indian reservations, unaffected by such machinations, have done a bang-up job all by themselves, no US government needed! Now, at least, we all agree prevention should happen.

  4. I own a tiny stand of timber in Texas and have been advised to do a controlled burn. Not to thin the pines, but rather to reduce competition from brush. The valuable pine trees grow better when they can get more nutrients & water.

    Of course, this policy only makes sense with private ownership of the timber.

  5. They sorta do controlled burns in that they let fires burn if there are no people in the area. And most controlled burns are of scrub stuff not big forests. The forestry service calls them “prescribed burns” rather than controlled burns, for whatever reason.

  6. Actually, the environmentalists I know are all for controlled burns and such. Though, I suppose there might be some ends justify the means types with some other agenda. I haven’t heard any for decades saying to quickly put out every fire and let things build up until there is a massive conflagration.

    It is usually home owners who don’t want to see any of their area burn, and get their local guy to put out everything as quickly as humanly possible. But it builds up, and when there is enough fuel, it is nearly unstoppable.

    No one could clear all the brush and undergrowth. That would cost more than B2 bombers.

  7. Yes, ideally an underground house. There’s enough air in your average size house to keep people alive for days, possibly weeks, that’s not an issue if you can just close vents.

  8. I don’t think you comprehend the heat involved. The radiant heat must be blocked by something other than the house or it is going to cook. That is why I suggest a 9 foot brick/concrete wall. Other measures like material choice of the structure obviously help, but are insufficient.

  9. Well, yes, you can reduce risk by using these materials, and people often do. They often go with Spanish style because the roof is tile and the walls stucco. These houses catch fire anyway from radiant heat coming through the windows or sufficiently cooking the walls. If the fire is hot enough it can indeed damage concrete and the rebar inside…though it will burn everything inside in that scenario as well. Glass melts… We use stucco because concrete buildings can get complicated and very expensive in an earthquake zone.

    I think the houses need 9 foot concrete walls on the property lines instead of fences, possibly even including the front . That can protect the house from the radiant heat of a nearby fire. Such walls are not generally permitted, because of stupid building codes, pandering to snoops, and Police unions. The tile on the roofs is good enough to prevent embers from spreading fire generally, though they sometimes can enter attic vents. The wall can be reinforced and filled with rebar and concrete.

    The radiant heat though can be very powerful melting bursting windows and catching everything inside on fire even before the windows break. The infrared radiation just goes right through the glass and catches stuff on fire like a strong infrared/red laser would. Blocking the path of that light, far enough away can protect the house.

    True, the wall may be seriously compromised after a fire, but it did its job. Far cheaper to replace a wall than a house.

    Additionally reflective shutters could protect from radiant heat getting into the house on the upper floor(s).

    The radiant heat also drys everything in your yard so it is ready to burst into flames. The radiant heat or the embers can set it to blase. With the wall, if the plants were not dry already they are less likely to quickly become dry if that radiation is blocked by the wall. Embers may land but will be less able to catch anything on fire, or the spread may be very limited.

    A good mist system around the house might also keep the heating down.

  10. Most of the people those lads are actually sacred to would probably like the government to do its job. Of course the parks service has had its budget cut back each year.

  11. Indeed, just like building on stilts in areas subject to storm surge, houses can be built to survive a forest fire just fine, there’s no reason to close areas subject to them to housing.

  12. I think you skipped reading the posting above because it calls for aggressive thinning. Also you exaggerate the value of thinning because, like it says above, it’s not feasible in 72% of the forested areas. By the way, fallen trees are not the issue because they rot away fairly quickly, it’s the standing dead trees that are a problem.

  13. Here’s an idea. If you want a home in the forest, build it with concrete, steel. compacted earth, glass, or other things that cannot burn. Shop around for an insurance company that takes into account that the risk of fire for a house where only the contents can burn is lower, and maximum loss is much lower.
    Concrete houses help with heating and cooling too, flooding, wind, and termites as well. When you get right down to it reinforced concrete is a near ideal material for static structures.
    Duck curve getting you down? Run an oversized AC during the high generation, or low load periods. The thermal mass changes heating, and AC load to a “dispatchable” load.

  14. I am totally with P51d007 below… I work extensively with the Native American tribes of northern California (many of whom lost there houses in the last fire) and they make it clear the state no longer “Manages” the forests. They refuse private companies that used to come in and do “Shelter Wood Cuts.” They won’t even allow companies to pull out the fallen trees. Now they have an inefficient government agency do it. Also, when was the last time you saw fire and forestry officials doing a “Control Burn?” They don’t do anything to prevent the fires by managing the forests. Yes, it’s very convenient for some vaunted environmental professor to say, stop building… but housing is not the cause of the fires. Homeless encampments, power lines, and thoughtless idiots playing with ignition sources are the cause of these blazes. And their ferocity is due to lack of management. We know the environmentalists want to depopulate the state. Perhaps it’s time to depopulate them and start managing our resources and allow small business to make a buck or two in helping that effort.

  15. Here’s a better idea. Allow the forest service to CLEAR THE BRUSH/UNDERGROWTH like they use to, before the environmentalist took over.

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