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California Burning

I've made it to the point in the 2003 fires inquiry report where they elaborate on the recommendation that environmental laws need to be streamlined to enable swifter fuel reductions. The elaboration doesn't provide much in the way of additional detail. In fact, only two data points are offered (though that's consistent with the presentation of the remainder of the findings and recommendations). There's a quote in the margin from Mayor Judith Valles of the City of San Bernardino claiming to have had a fuel reduction project stalled by the Fish and Wildlife Service (which for all we know could have been a justified move -- there's no reason to suppose that all proposed fuel reduction projects are good, even from a strictly fire safety standpoint).

The report also refers to a June 2003 GAO report claiming that 59% of all fuel reduction projects, and 68% of California's, are delayed due to appeals and litigation. I couldn't find any such report on the GAO site, but this October 2003 GAO report contains a similar figure for fuel reduction projects in FY 2001-2002. The problem is, it's 58% of fuel reduction projects open to appeal that have been appealed, not 58% of all projects. About half of the projects surveyed were not open to appeal. A mere 3% of all projects were litigated. Of the few that were appealed, 73% were subsequently implemented without changes, and 79% (83% in California) were resolved within the prescribed 90-day period. The vast majority of the appeals and litigation were, however, by environmental groups. That's a lot of numbers, so let's put it in chart form (unfortunately the GAO only gives data by number of projects, not acreage).

Without knowing the details of the individual cases, it looks to me like a reasonable appeal rate to keep agencies accountable without jeopardizing safety.

The inquiry report found that clearing areas immediately surrounding homes has a huge impact on the home's survival during a fire, even in a case like the 2003 California fires when a fire could pick up steam raging through fuel-heavy wildlands before pouncing on a town. Interestingly, the GAO report found a lower rate of appeals for projects near settlement -- 53% of appealable projects in the urban-wildland interface were appealed, versus 63% of appealable projects in roadless areas. The difference is stronger in California, where 18% versus 43% of all projects and 59% versus 75% of appealable projects were appealed in the wildland-urban interface and roadless areas, respectively.


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