Cal Fire Fumbles Key Responsibilities to Prevent Catastrophic Wildfires Despite Historic Budget

The State, for a generation, has mismanaged our forest—by refusing to clean up the dead brush, getting rid of dead tress—totally ignoring the forest thus giving fuel for the massive wildfires the Democrats have tolerated.

“Wilson estimates about 70% of his land — the whole northern end, including grassland, and pine and Douglas fir timberland — has burned in recent years. It was hit by the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire and the 2020 August Complex Fire, both among the largest fires in state history.

“The scale of the fires covered the country in a way we hadn’t seen, in size or intensity,” Wilson recalled.”

Until government wants to control forest fires, instead of creating conditions ot make them worse, this is a story expected for six months of the year.

Cal Fire Fumbles Key Responsibilities to Prevent Catastrophic Wildfires Despite Historic Budget

A California Newsroom investigation finds that the department’s missteps potentially leave the state at greater risk of catastrophic fires.

By Scott Rudd |Capital Public Radio and Danielle Venton | KQED, 6/21/22   


Richard A. Wilson is worried about wildfires this summer, amid dry conditions, extreme temperatures, punishing winds and the amplification of climate change.

“We are very vulnerable,” the 90-year-old said while looking out the window of his house on Buck Mountain, part of a 3,000-acre cattle ranch spanning Mendocino and Trinity counties that has been in his family for 80 years.

Wilson estimates about 70% of his land — the whole northern end, including grassland, and pine and Douglas fir timberland — has burned in recent years. It was hit by the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire and the 2020 August Complex Fire, both among the largest fires in state history.

“The scale of the fires covered the country in a way we hadn’t seen, in size or intensity,” Wilson recalled.

Wildfires in California have burned nearly 7 million acres in the last two years alone. It is not only the size of the fires but also the destruction that’s breathtaking. In just the 2021 fire season, the Dixie Fire destroyed the town of Greenville and the Caldor Fire devastated the foothills community of Grizzly Flats. Both were the first fires in modern state history to burn across the Sierra Nevada.

This year, Wilson fears, will be dangerous, as well: “We are headed into a tenuous time.”

Wilson is not just any worried landowner: He’s the former head of Cal Fire, the state department responsible for fighting wildfires and managing forestland.

And while Cal Fire is broadly recognized as a leader in firefighting, Wilson says it is also partly to blame for the looming danger.

When he led the department in the 1990s, he claims it viewed caring for forest health as a primary mission. Foresters are trained to see wooded areas as living ecosystems, and know how to make them more fire-resilient.

But in the years after his tenure, he says the culture changed. Firefighting, not forestry, became the route to advancement.

“And it’s now a fire department. A very good fire department. But it’s not a forestry department,” Wilson said.

Today, Cal Fire is at an inflection point: trying to return to a greater emphasis on fire mitigation and forest health, while still working to protect communities from historic and deadly wildfires. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature lavished the department with record amounts of money for prescribed burns, brush clearing and cutting fuel breaks. But money alone does not solve the problem.

Cal Fire has publicly signaled a commitment to rebalancing its priorities. Buta monthslong investigation by The California Newsroom, a public media collaboration, found that the department continues to fumble key responsibilities related to forest management and wildfire mitigation, potentially leaving the state at greater risk of catastrophic fires.

The investigation found:

  • The state set aside a record $1.5 billion for wildfire prevention and forest health in 2021. However, Cal Fire’s forest management hiring remains stagnant, while its firefighting staffing has ballooned.
  • Cal Fire is struggling to track wildfire prevention projects that experts say are desperately needed to protect communities from destructive wildfires. The department still can’t determine how many acres of work it completed and funded through grants in the fiscal year ending in June 2021. 
  • Cal Fire has taken years to implement laws passed by the state Legislature. A program, required under state law to bolster the prescribed-burn workforce, suffered nearly a year of delay. So far, only two burn bosses have been certified, slowing the pace of protective projects. Experts say this delay has caused a loss of opportunities to enact community-protecting work.
  • For at least four years, Cal Fire has failed to send its annual report to the Legislature detailing the department’s fire prevention efforts. The report, required by law, is an inventory of Cal Fire’s efforts and helps lawmakers understand the state’s progress on protecting vulnerable communities.

Cal Fire has increased its output during the past five years. It completed fire prevention work — directly or through grants — on 105,000 acres in the fiscal year that ended in June 2020. The department could not provide a more current total.

In 2020, Newsom tasked Cal Fire, along with partners that control state and private land, with performing 500,000 acres of forest management and fire mitigation work every year by 2025. But progress toward that goal has been slow, in part because a key state program failed to increase project completions.

In an interview, Cal Fire’s Joe Tyler, who was appointed chief in March, said the department is making progress on improving forest health and protecting communities in advance of catastrophic fires by “investing in community preparedness and mitigation” and “continuing to do those fuels projects across the board.”

He points to this year’s creation of the Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation division, which aims to “develop, prioritize and implement strategies and projects that create fire adapted communities and landscapes.”

But Tyler said the longer, more extreme wildfire seasons — coupled with the pandemic — have left the department’s workforce “fatigued.” That has affected Cal Fire’s administrative, forest management and fire suppression capabilities.

Tyler also acknowledged the need to change Cal Fire’s culture so it focuses more on prevention.

“Watching these fires get larger and more damaging since 2014, I sincerely recognize the need to change the way we do — and have changed the way that we do — business,” he said.

Fire practitioners like Margo Robbins, executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, argue this change at Cal Fire is long overdue.

“I think that they have forgotten that forestry is part of their responsibility, quite frankly,” said Robbins, whose expertise is in setting intentional fires that benefit the landscape and can protect communities.

She noted that Cal Fire is “moving in the right direction” by boosting investment in fire mitigation and fuel reduction. And the department has helped accommodate cultural prescribed burning led by Native American communities.

But “they have a ways to go,” Robbins added.

“If they would focus more on that management piece, I think we would be seeing a very different scenario on our landscapes and a very different scenario in terms of wildfires,” she said.

Rebranding the department, changing the culture

Back when Wilson ran Cal Fire in the 1990s, it was known by its official name: the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He says during those years he made sure foresters — who are trained in managing forest health — had a lot of say. He feels their voice has disappeared.

In the photo lineup of Cal Fire’s past executive roster, Wilson is the last chief wearing a suit and tie. All subsequent chiefs are wearing uniforms with badges.

“Their business [now] is putting fires out,” Wilson said. “The bigger the fires, the more people they need to put the fires out. That’s a complete reverse of somebody trying to deal with the forest so if there is a fire, it doesn’t get out of control and burn the whole thing down.”

The bigger the fires, the more people they need to put the fires out.

— Richard A. Wilson, former Cal Fire chief

The new chief, Tyler, is a 30-year veteran of the department who previously oversaw aspects of Cal Fire’s firefighting and emergency response. He said he witnessed the culture change, as well.

“I recall far ago in my career, in the ’90s, where fuels treatment, fuels reduction, vegetation management was an extremely high priority of the department,” Tyler said.

But then, with the onset of larger and more damaging fires, the department’s focus increasingly shifted to suppression.

The name “Cal Fire” embodies this tension. In 2006, the Legislature passed a law allowing The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to rebrand.

Supporters of the bill — including the department’s firefighters union — argued the change was “necessary to reflect [the department’s] primary role as a fire-fighting agency.” But the department itself had opposed the legislation, worried that the new moniker would obscure its forest management mandate.

These tensions are once again at the fore as California faces a new wildfire reality.

Record investment, few new fire-prevention hires

Last year, Newsom and lawmakers allocated a record $1.5 billion for wildfire prevention and forest management, with the bulk of it going to Cal Fire.

It’s a record amount. As of April, about half of the $1.5 billion had been “committed” to specific projects and initiatives, according to a recent report from the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees Cal Fire. The state has up to seven years to spend the bulk of the investment; some money may have to be spent sooner.

The agency says the committed money is going to good use. “We’ve launched over 550 new projects with that funding,” said Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for forest and wildland resilience with the Natural Resources Agency. “Which is pretty fast — for bureaucracy, from appropriation — within less than a year.”

Hundreds of these projects are specific wildfire prevention and forest health efforts, according to a chart on the agency’s website. For example, the Tuolumne County Resource Conservation District is planning a 641-acre fuel break to protect the communities of Groveland and Big Oak Flat.

About Stephen Frank

Stephen Frank is the publisher and editor of California Political News and Views. He speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows. He is a fulltime political consultant.

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