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Barack Obama, the Left’s erstwhile patron saint, appears to have taken his deputy Rahm Emanuel’s advice to heart: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” On Wednesday, Obama rushed to blame climate change for the wildfires ravaging the West Coast, insisting that Californians’ “lives” depend on Joe Biden beating Donald Trump in November. As usual, Obama has the entire situation backward: Climate change isn’t the culprit behind the infernos, poor forest management is — and the climate regulations Obama champions have prevented the controlled burns necessary for keeping the fires in check.
“The fires across the West Coast are just the latest examples of the very real ways our changing climate is changing our communities. Protecting our planet is on the ballot. Vote like your life depends on it—because it does,” Obama tweeted with photos of smoke altering the skyline of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Even if man-made climate change from burning fossil fuels is exacerbating the situation, fires in California are not exactly a new phenomenon. The conflagrations of recent years aren’t evidence of climate change but a result of poor forest management.
It seems easy to blame a gender reveal party or some other incident for creating the spark that grows into a wildfire, but even when excited new parents aren’t setting off pyrotechnic devices, dry and mismanaged forests can still go up in flames at the slightest provocation — lightning strikes cause many forest fires.
I grew up in the foothills of dry Colorado, where the grass is not green but brown. My father, a volunteer wildland firefighter, sent my brother and me out to rake up dry leaves, pine trees, and other materials we termed “duff” — matter from the forest floor that would go up in flames upon contact with the smallest spark. My father — and later my brother and I — would go out with a chainsaw to trim the lower-hanging pine branches and a weed-whacker to take care of the tall grasses.
For my Eagle Scout project, I led a team of men and boys to clear out the forest floor and trim low-hanging branches near a large propane tank — in order to prevent potential forest fires from spreading up the mountain to burn the houses nearby.
Clearing the forest floor is thankless work, and it is far more efficient to set a small, controlled fire and let nature do the job for you.
As Ars Technica’s Scott Johnson explained this past January, “Prescribed burns utilize low-intensity fires during favorable weather to safely remove some of the fuel that has accumulated on the ground—fuel present partly as a result of our past practice of putting out wildfires as aggressively as possible. It’s often combined with mechanical thinning of brush and trees that serve as ‘ladders’ for fires to climb into treetops, with the resulting brush piles burned later.”
A research team led by Stanford’s Rebecca Miller claimed that about 20 percent of California — 20 million acres — could benefit from controlled burns.
California Governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom have prevented this common-sense approach, however.
As Joel Kotkin, an executive director of the Urban Reform Institute, pointed out over at RealClearEnergy, Brown and Newsom “conveniently blame ‘global warming’ for the massive destruction. But even granting that summer the temperatures have crept up, one would think this would lead to improved management of forests and brush — after all it is science! But the green allies have long stood against the harvesting of dead trees and the aggressive clearing of brush.” Brown vetoed attempts to manage the forests in 2016.
While the state Legislative Analyst Office claimed that climate change contributed to the fires, it concluded that the accumulation of fuel, along with development in certain exurban areas, drove the increase in fires. A 2018 Little Hoover Commission report called for more aggressive management in the Sierra, an area that fires have devastated.
Stanford’s Rebecca Miller led a team in researching the reasons why California doesn’t use controlled burns to mitigate wildfires. While individuals, state employees, or federal staff are authorized to set controlled burns, individuals must get permits from CAL FIRE and their local air board, and assume legal liability for any mistakes, or contract with CAL FIRE to do the work.
While the area planned to be burned has doubled each year since 2013, about one-half to one-third of that area actually gets burned, according to Ars Technica. The U.S. Forest Service has repeatedly fallen short of its annual plan. The backlog totals 20 million acres.
Miller’s team found three types of barriers to controlled burns: risks, resources, and regulations. Private landowners fear the liability that comes with carrying out the controlled burns. CAL FIRE only has so many resources and it prioritizes responding to wildfires over managing controlled burns.
Finally, various regulations restrict California’s ability to manage forests properly. The air board must approve controlled burns, and many stakeholders said the working definition of “acceptable weather conditions” is too strict. California also counts carbon emissions from controlled burns as human-caused, while categorizing emissions from wildfires as natural.
Even controlled burns supported by state or federal grants have to go through additional environmental reviews, which can block projects past their windows of opportunity. Overly stringent environmental regulations are holding back California’s ability to properly manage its forests.
Kotkin noted that 2019’s wildfires cost California’s economy $2 billion, and that number might increase this year. The fires also hold back California’s green ambitions. “These fires are not great for the environment or for reaching the state’s super-ambitious greenhouse gas goals: According to the U.S. Geological Service, the 2018 fires emitted roughly as much greenhouse gas as an entire year of electricity generation.”
To a climate-obsessed Democratic hammer, every disaster is a nail, calling for more regulation. Yet climate regulations have contributed to California’s inability to combat wildfires with controlled burns.
Barack Obama has it exactly wrong. The wildfires aren’t a call for more climate regulation — they’re evidence that California needs to loosen things up and take control of the forest’s capacity to burn. If mitigating this tragedy requires voting in the 2020 election, it’s a case for Donald Trump, not Joe Biden.