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Wildfire Prevention Seen as a Way to Reduce High Suppression Costs in California

Wildfire Prevention Seen as a Way to Reduce High Suppression Costs in California

Crews battle fires in eastern Fresno County, California, on June 25, 2024. (Cal Fire)

Summer Lane
Summer Lane

7/8/2024

Updated: 7/15/2024

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As the cost of fighting wildfires has risen in California and nationwide over the past decade, authorities are focusing on prevention as a key part of their fire strategy.
Since 2014, wildfire suppression efforts have cost the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior more than $3 billion annually, according to the agencies.
The base firefighting budget of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, was $3 billion in 2023-24, nearly tripling in the past decade, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, and putting it on par with nationwide expenditures.
Climbing suppression costs have highlighted prevention as an alternative.
Cal Fire uses prescribed burns to clear forest floors and remove dry fuel beds, a practice that has become a multi-agency effort. Nationwide, the number of prescribed burns conducted by the U.S. Forest Service last week exceeded the agency’s 25-year record, according to its spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman.
Hardscaping property, for example using paved paths and stone walls as potential fuel breaks, and practicing common-sense fire safety precautions while camping or hiking are also key. “Ninety-five percent of fires are still human-caused,” Ms. Freeman told The Epoch Times.
But prevention has been hindered by policy.
The wildfires in California’s mountains and foothills are the result of years of fire exclusion in the high timber ecosystems of the upper Sierra, said Ms. Freeman.
“We got upside down,” she said. For years, fire was kept out of the timber and foothills, and vegetation and underbrush grew unchallenged.
Before Europeans settled in California, indigenous tribes managed the forests and wildlands with controlled burns. In 1850, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians outlawed the practice of “cultural burning,” according to the University of California.
“Those timber systems are fire-adapted, and they have what they call a ‘natural fire return interval,’ which is when, often, a natural fire would start from lightning,” Ms. Freeman stated.
That cycle occurs every seven to 12 years. “When you exclude fire, you’re preventing the forest’s ability to manage itself,” she said.
Dense vegetation, grass, brush, and water-starved trees are the perfect environment for fire ignition, where a single lightning strike can spark a fire with “higher severity” and extreme resistance to containment, she explained.
Years of drought have led to stressed trees, and years of fire exclusion have created a tinderbox. Ms. Freeman called the compounding factors a “force multiplier” making modern fires “resistant to control.”
In 2024, Cal Fire has already responded to over 2,800 wildland fires affecting 130,000 acres, or about 200 square miles. The Fresno June Lightning Complex fire burned over 10,000 acres, about 15 square miles, in the foothills of Fresno County, just outside Sequoia National Park. The fires were started by lightning strikes.
In recent years, wildfire incidents like the 2015 Rough fire burned over 150,000 acres near Hume Lake and Spanish Mountain in Kings Canyon National Park. In 2018, the Camp fire in Northern California’s Butte County was the deadliest fire incident in state history with 85 civilian fatalities, the loss of 18,000 structures, and destruction of two towns, Paradise and Concow.
Suppression costs include funding for firefighters, smoke jumpers, bulldozers, support personnel, and air assets like tankers and helicopters.
But wildfire costs can also be indirect, according to a 2022 report from the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, a group that promotes science-based forest management. Smoke exposure, for example, “leads to statistically and economically significant losses in annual labor income.”
Damage to structures and property factors into the total fire costs. The report noted that over the past 20 years, the average annual insurance industry payout for wildfire structures has hit $4 billion.
“We have a very high population base in what we call the wildland-urban interface,” Ms. Freeman said.
The interface, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, “is the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.”
The presence of structures or human life in otherwise rural areas presents unique challenges to containment. “You have to work around those values at risk—life and property,” Ms. Freeman said.
Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the prescribed burn data provided by the U.S. Forest Service. The Epoch Times regrets the error.
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Summer Lane is the bestselling author of 30 adventure books, including the hit "Collapse Series." She is a reporter and writer with years of experience in journalism and political analysis. Summer is a wife and mother and lives in the Central Valley of California.

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