If you’ve lived in California for a long time, you are used to hearing about fire being caught at someplace or the other throughout the year. Many companies, due to this fear, have even taken the precautionary measure of getting a Watch Guard at their property just to ensure complete safety. And if you have been paying attention to the news, you probably might have come accross about something called a “controlled burn,” the practice of intentionally setting fires to limit the spread of wildfires that might occur later.
TV news broadcasts would show video of firefighters walking with torches through areas of dry brush, spilling fire onto the ground. Traffic reports would alert drivers that it was a controlled burn, nothing to worry about, just the fire department doing a little maintenance on hillsides near roads.
Whatever happened to those?
Controlled burns are used much less frequently today than in decades past because of concern about their impact on the environment. Required environmental reviews have greatly reduced the number of controlled burns on federal lands, and in California, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) tightly regulates the practice to protect air quality.
Controlled fires release smoke and particles into the air, and CARB has strict rules, and miles of red tape, before anything releases smoke and particles into the air.
If nature was a truck, it would not be permitted to operate on California’s roads.
The price of limiting controlled burns is increased vulnerability to fires that sweep across tens or hundreds of thousands of acres, taking out houses and businesses and releasing even more smoke and particles into the air.
In a press conference this week, Gov. Jerry Brown blamed climate change for the severity of the fires in California and declared that tens or hundreds of billions of dollars would be needed to address the problem.
Actually, one major wildfire can release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all the state’s climate-change mitigation policies have managed to reduce in a year. So Californians get the worst of everything — the higher cost of energy from climate policies that tax oil and natural gas, plus the catastrophic fire damage, plus the greenhouse gas emissions and air-quality issues from the uncontrollable fires.
The technical name for these policies is “blithering idiocy.”
In February 2018, the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, released a report titled “Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada.” The report warned, “California’s forests suffer from neglect and mismanagement, resulting in overcrowding that leaves them susceptible to disease, insects and wildfire.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that between November 2016 and December 2017, approximately 27 million trees died on federal, state and private lands in California. That brought the dead-tree total in California to 129 million since 2010.
After years of environmentally motivated limits on logging and prescribed burns, wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018 were the most devastating in state history. There really isn’t much to be gained, except politically, from blaming climate-change “deniers,” as Brown did in his press conference. It would be more useful for the governor to speak to his appointees at CARB about their policies for approving prescribed burns.
CARB adopted Smoke Management Guidelines in 2000, and local air districts make more rules and regulations.
Before receiving permission from an air district to conduct a controlled burn, the “burner” must register the burn with the air district, obtain a permit, submit a smoke management plan (SMP) and receive approval of the plan.
The SMP must include details including the smoke travel projections, smoke minimization techniques and a description of alternatives to burning. It also must list public notification procedures and expected air
emissions. Given the demonstrated risk of out-of-control catastrophic wildfires, like the one that forced nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes in the last week, the Smoke Management Guidelines and local rules and regulations might need another look.
“We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity when fires do occur,” Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott told KQED radio last summer, “So a little bit of smoke now and a little bit of inconvenience now is well worth offsetting these large damaging fires.” Too late for the victims of the Woolsey, Hill and Camp fires, but not too late for the victims of the next one.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. [email protected] Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.
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