This is Not Fine

Why is California burning? The experts all know the answer–CA was made to burn and if you don’t do controlled burns, CA will burn uncontrolled. Here’s ProPublica in an article titled They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.

…When I reached Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who is based in Mammoth, California, and asked if there was any meaningful scientific dissent to the idea that we need to do more controlled burning, he said, “None that I know of.”

So why doesn’t it happen? Liability law, risk-aversion, rent seeking and vetocracy. Here’s Pro-Publica on excess risk aversion in the fire service (driven by a risk averse public.) (Compare with my analysis of why the FDA is too risk averse.)

Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.”

The ProPublica piece is actually remarkably radical as it offers as one solution, privatized burning!

Fire is not just for professionals, not just for government employees and their contractors. Intentional fire, as she sees it, is “a tool and anyone who’s managing land is going to have prescribed fire in their toolbox.” That is not the world we’ve been inhabiting in the West. “That’s been the hard part in California,” Quinn-Davidson said. “In trying to increase the pace and scale of prescribed fire, we’re actually fighting some really, some really deep cultural attitudes around who gets to use it and where it belongs in society.”

Here’s a bit on vetocracy:

Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.”

…“One thing to keep in mind is that air-quality impacts from prescribed burning are minuscule compared to what you’re experiencing right now,”

Francis Fukuyama also pointed to liability law, risk-aversion, rent seeking and vetocracy as factors driving dysfunction at the forest service in a 2014 article in Foreign Affairs but the forest service was only the jumping off point for his pieced titled, America in Decay The Sources of Political Dysfunction (jstor). I don’t agree with everything in that piece but it’s well worth reading to drive home the point that pandemics, forest fires, electrical shortages and more are deeply connected.

Hat tip: Garett Jones.

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