The two dozen major fires burning across Northern California were sparked by more than 12,000 lightning strikes, a freak weather occurrence that turned what had been a relatively mild fire season into a devastating catastrophe.

Yet what’s driving these enormous fires is not sparks, but millions of acres of fuel: bone-dry trees and brush that haven’t burned in many years.

Before the Gold Rush in 1849, large parts of California burned every few decades. Lightning fires burned for months, and native tribes burned the land, clearing out dead vegetation. But for much of the past century, as the state’s population has built homes, towns and parks in rural areas, firefighters have extinguished the flames to save property and lives, allowing forests and other landscapes to become unnaturally dense.

As a result, fires now burn hotter and with more intensity. Climate change is increasing temperatures and drying out vegetation earlier. And the reckoning is here.

“We have put out fires for 100 years. Now we are paying the price,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. “It will take a while to make these forests healthy again. But it’s absolutely possible.”

California has been increasing its efforts. Last week, in a little-noticed milestone, state officials signed a major agreement with the federal government that aims to reshape how forests are managed for years to come.

Under the plan, California agencies and the U.S. Forest Service will use brush clearing, logging and prescribed fires to thin out 1 million acres a year by 2025 — an area larger than Yosemite National Park every 12 months, and roughly double the current rate of thinning, which already is double rates from a few years ago.

The Forest Service and the state Natural Resources Agency also committed to drawing up a 20-year plan by next year to identify which areas of the state will get priority for thinning projects. They will update it every five years and share it with the public.

“What we’re seeing is a real partnership. There is a coming together,” said Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for forest resource management at the California Natural Resources Agency.

“The legacy of fire suppression has contributed to the overstocked forests that we have today,” Morse said. “It’s leading to catastrophic wildfires that are compounded by climate change.”

Morse said the goal is to treat at least 15 million acres, roughly 15% of all the land in California, including conifer forests like the ones that are burning near the coast, along with oak woodlands and other landscapes.

It’s part of a three-step strategy she said the state is expanding. First is urging residents to clear “defensible space” around their homes. Second is creating thinned-out areas, known as “shaded fuel breaks,” between wild areas and communities, like a project the state completed along Highway 17 between Los Gatos and Summit Road in Santa Cruz County last year. And, finally, finishing larger restoration projects to thin trees and brush back to more historic levels, first with chain saws, and then in several years, with controlled burns.

But the plan is not without complications.

Environmental regulations will need to be streamlined, particularly permits for landowners with small parcels to thin trees and brush on their properties. Roughly 40% of the 33 million acres of forest in California are owned by private landowners, and 99% own less than 500 acres. Many are retirees living in rural areas without much money.

Some residents complain about controlled burns because they put smoke in the air and spike hospital visits from people with asthma.

Also, more uses will need to be found for millions of tons of dead brush and small trees that will be removed from forests, much of which has little lumber value. Some can be used to make chipboard and other forest products. There are hopes some can be made into biofuels. The material also can be burned at biomass plants to make electricity, but those are polluting and controversial in many communities. Otherwise, crews pile up dead brush in the forest during spring and winter months and burn it when wildfire risk is low.

And it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars every year. In 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a $1 billion plan, with $200 million a year for five years coming from fees some industries pay under the state’s greenhouse gas auctions, to provide grants to cities, counties, fire departments and nonprofit groups to thin overgrown forests around towns. There has been less spending for federally owned lands, which make up 58% of California’s forests, despite President Donald Trump often criticizing California for the way it manages its forests.

“Over the past few years, the state, I think, has made good progress,” said Rich Gordon, CEO of the California Forestry Association, the state’s main logging industry trade association. “The federal government has improved slightly, but only slightly. This commitment to a goal will be helpful in moving the federal government along.”

Trump signed a key piece of bipartisan legislation last month, the Great American Outdoors Act, which provides $9.5 billion over the next five years for upgrades at America’s national parks, along with projects on other public lands like national forests, which could pay for some thinning costs.

Environmental groups say they generally support the more aggressive thinning plan. But they have concerns.

“The question is how you do it in a way that’s responsible and driven by science and not driven by the political demands of the logging industry,” said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California.

“There is a need to step up improved forest management,” she said. “There’s a debate about whether that requires thinning before you do prescribed burns or not. Every area is different.”

Stephens, the UC fire scientist, estimates that before the Gold Rush, roughly 4.5 million acres a year in California burned. By the 1950s and 1960s, that was down to about 250,000 acres a year. In recent years, it has approached 2 million acres a year.

Forests in the Sierra typically had about 40 trees per acre in the early 1800s, he said. Now they have 400 or more. Heavy brush and thick forests are burning now in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he noted.

“The scale of these fires in Santa Cruz, I think a lot of people thought weren’t possible,” he said. “It’s been 50 to 70 years since a lot of these places have burned. There’s got to be better conservation of these forests.”


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