How Regulations Made California's Fires Worse

After raging through almost all of December, the so-called Thomas fire, California's largest wildfire ever recorded, was finally contained on January 12.  While the worst is behind us (for now), the fact that last year's wildfires so violently spun out of control puts the spotlight on the Golden State's government and its lack of fire prevention measures.

The fires across the state caused unprecedented damage and loss of life.  Unsurprisingly, California governor Jerry Brown was quick to pin the blame on climate change for the forest fires' ferocity and extraordinary longevity this season.  Whatever truth there may be to this, it would be a mistake to gloss over how misguided policies and regulations have hurt California's ability to prevent and respond to fires.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), shrubs and live and dead vegetation are the most important factor in forest fires, being an easily ignitable fuel source that helps spread the flames quickly over vast distances.  For a dry and warm state prone to fires, regular clearing measures removing this vegetation should be common sense.  However, California has enacted several laws that heavily restrict such vital fire-preventing measures as logging, removal of dead trees, and clearing of dry underbrush.

During a congressional hearing in May, California congressman Tom McClintock blasted environmentalists for having fervently opposed such measures since the early 1970s.  Instead, they have been advocating that forests be left to their own devices – despite the fact that thousands of years of history shows that forests need to be appropriately maintained in order to reap all their benefits and reduce the risk of fires.  This understanding of the environment has too often been trumped by politics in California.

When a 2013 environmental impact report advocated the benefits of large-scale vegetation management in San Diego County, activists violently rejected its conclusions.  As in the decades before, concerns over wildlife and environmental impacts were ultimately more important than the safety of fellow citizens, with the result that brush and dead vegetation were allowed to accumulate unimpeded for more than forty years.

Ironically, 2013 also saw a range of massive wildfires across California that were exacerbated by the U.S. Forest Service failing to follow through on crucial tree-thinning projects.  The same happened immediately before the recent devastating fires, with the U.S. Forest Service once again neglecting to clear brush in the woods around Los Angeles as originally planned.

Worse still, government agencies have actively stymied rescue efforts.  In this case, it was CAL FIRE withholding a license for a Boeing 747 Global SuperTanker firefighting plane, capable of dropping almost 20,000 gallons of fire retardant on the inferno below.  Although the license was finally granted in September, precious months had passed during which the plane could have deployed to offer much needed fire-suppressing support across California.  The Boeing subsequently proved instrumental in containing much of the fires ravaging California in December – less than a week after Donald Trump declared the California fires a national emergency.

As the SuperTanker example shows, private resources are indispensable for a swift and effective response in national emergencies.  Top-of-the-line equipment like the SuperTanker is heavily reliant on functioning fixed-base operators (FBOs) for refueling and replenishing payloads.  In the midst of the fires, a campaign to impose price regulations on these very FBOs emerged, threatening to undermine the first line of defense in providing essential services during natural disasters.

If history is a lesson, more regulation certainly isn't what's needed in times of emergency, especially not if these regulations seek to counteract the market forces necessary for rescue efforts to continue their operations.  Luckily, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reached the same conclusions amid the December wildfires.  In a document published on December 7, the FAA strongly argued that such price controls are unnecessary, seeing how FBOs need to adapt to the pressures of business realities that are often beyond their control.

While the FAA acted for the greater good in this instance, the same can't be expected from California's authorities.  Luckily, other states have been taking note.  Oregon, a state equally prone to wildfires, has successfully prevented the outbreak of large-scale fires since it implemented comprehensive thinning and pruning measures in the 1990s.  Meanwhile, citizens in New Mexico are petitioning the state legislature to facilitate forest management so that fires at the scale of those in California can be prevented.

California would be smart to cut the environmentalist zeal from its policies and follow Oregon's or New Mexico's lead.  A catastrophe the likes of which we witnessed in 2017 should more than suffice to trigger a rethinking of old approaches.  Deregulation means not only standing up to the green lobby, but also protecting citizens' lives and homes in national emergencies.

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