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Environmentalism Caused California's Fires?

Calif. Urged to Ease Environmental Rules

California must ease its environmental standards to prevent wildfires like those that killed dozens of people last fall, a panel said Wednesday in its final report on the devastating blazes.

The panel said environmental concerns had hampered efforts to clear brush and trees surrounding housing developments in wildland areas, where fire is part of the natural cycle. That extra growth allowed the wildfires to spread, the commission said.

... Those [48 recommendations] include better cooperation and communication between fire agencies; more training and improved equipment; quicker use of military aircraft; and reconsideration of the sunset deadline for launching firefighting aircraft.

I'll admit to having a bit of a knee-jerk reaction against this claim, since unfairly blaming environmentalists for the ill effects of fire has been a tactic used in promoting the Healthy Forests Initiative. But the storyline that environmental regulations hamper fire safety is not inherently implausible, and there are certain tradeoffs between ecosystem and safety values, so southern California may be a case where it actually happens. Let's go to the report itself (enormous pdf).

I haven't gotten past the executive summary yet, but the story it paints is somewhat different. The introductory letters reflect the emphasis of the AP story on environmental laws as major contributors to the problem. But in the list of findings, the only one that deals with environmental laws is Finding 2:

There are numerous conflicting land management and environmental laws and regulations at all levels of government.

If that's a fair summary of the finding, then it seems to be little help to deregulators and little threat to environmentalists. The problem as described seems to be not with the scope of environmental laws, but with their interjurisdictional confusion. It's not surprising that firefighters being shuttled off to counties and states they aren't familiar with would be tripped up by a patchwork of differing local regulations.

The report goes on to note that fuel accumulation was a major factor, but it is not linked -- as it is in the news story -- to environmental laws. No clear explanation is given in the executive summary, but I can offer one example in which it was disaster aid structure, not environmentalism, that contributed to fuel buildup. California was hit by a beetle infestation that left large swaths of forest dead, prime fuel for a catastrophic fire. County officials tried to get funding to pay for clearing the trees over a year in advance. However, they were turned down first by the state, and later by the feds. The justification was that a state of emergency could only be declared, and the funds resulting from that used, after a disaster had taken place, not for preventative measures.

Moving on to the recommendations, there is again only one that really confronts the issue of environmental laws. Rated as high-priority, it says:

The Commission recommends that a task force be established to review the social, political, economic and scientific issues relating to conflicts between environmental and ecosystem values and land management planning, and their impact on the use of proven fire prevention and fire safety measures to protect lives and property in our WUI [wildland-urban interface] areas.

This suggests a more straightforward environment vs fire safety problem. However, the recommendation is quite vague. This contrasts with the recommendations relating to communications, training, and insurance, which are generally fairly specific.

More to come as I read the remaining 200 pages ...


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