California Torched by Worst Wildfires in State History

Published November 21, 2003

Wildfires torched Southern California during the latter half of October, devastating an area larger than Rhode Island and prompting the U.S. Senate to finally pass its version of President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

The fires extended from the Mexican border through outlying Los Angeles suburbs, with San Diego County suffering the worst. As of November 1, the fires claimed 20 lives, including one firefighter, and more than 2,700 homes and other buildings. Official damage estimates ranged from $1.25 to $2 billion, making the fires the most expensive in state history.

Environmental Toll

The environmental toll also was devastating, as thousands of animals, including endangered California condors and endangered California gnat catchers, perished in the flames. “It could take several years for the populations of bigger game—deer, mountain lions, and bears—to recover,” predicted Stephen Edinger of the California Fish and Game department.

“The recovery of animal and plant species will depend on the intensity of the fire and how much of the ground was actually baked,” added Jim Patton, emeritus professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley.

In an unwelcome irony, endangered salmon were expected to feel some of the worst effects of the fires. Even as the fires were burning hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, environmental activist groups were preventing logging in area wetlands, arguing that loggers had yet to prove resource recovery near waterways would not harm the salmon. Their point was rendered moot as fires ravaged the region, wreaking havoc far worse than any logging activities could have done.

“Unlike wildfires, state and federal regulators can require that logging or thinning be kept far enough away from wetland areas” so as not to harm endangered salmon, noted the November 1 San Francisco Chronicle.

“If I had to choose which is going to cause the most damage,” said Phil Aune, vice president of the California Forestry Association, “I’d choose catastrophic wildfire, because that’s going to cause huge, huge erosion into the streams.”

Carlton Yee, professor emeritus in forestry at Humboldt State University and former chair of the California Board of Forestry, agreed. Yee stated that erosion and water temperature changes—logging’s most negative effects on endangered salmon—pale in comparison to the harmful effects of wildfires.

Mark Price, chairman of the planning board in Alpine, California, which was among the towns worst hit by the fires, lamented that environmental restrictions prevented his town from taking adequate precautions before the fires engulfed his community. “When you block brush-clearing and creation of firebreaks, it can put homes and people on the endangered species list, too,” said Price. “When you do get permission to clear anything, the environmentalists come out and make sure you don’t clear one bit more of brush than you’re allowed.”

“In Southern California, clearing out the ‘excess fuels’ that have resulted from past fire suppression, and reconfiguring the landscape to create more firebreaks and other barriers to fire, would have been expensive but feasible,” according to Robert Nelson, professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland.

“So why didn’t government take effective management and policy action to reduce fire risks before total disaster struck?” Nelson asked. “Leaving aside the individual human tragedies, the costs would certainly have been less than the $2 billion (and climbing) that is now projected in terms of fire-fighting costs and lost property values.”

Added Nelson, “Environmental organizations also bear a large responsibility for the general failure to take effective action to reduce the risks of catastrophic fire. They sued the Forest Service and other government agencies at every opportunity to block timber harvesting and virtually any other management action.”

Senate Passes Healthy Forests Bill

Responding to the California wildfires, and after more than a year of inaction on the issue, the U.S. Senate finally passed its version of President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative. The legislation was passed on October 30 by a vote of 80-14. A House-Senate committee was scheduled to hammer out differences between the Senate legislation and the House version, which was passed in May.

The most important differences between the two bills were the Senate’s insistence that at least half of its $760 million allocation of funds be directed to “urban interface” areas where residential communities interact with wilderness areas. By contrast, the House bill gives forest managers themselves the discretion to select where forest management funds would best be spent.

Both bills address legal and bureaucratic obstacles to effective forest management, such as the current ability of environmental activist groups to indefinitely postpone forest management projects with agency appeals and federal lawsuits. The Senate bill gives such groups more leeway than the House bill to challenge forest management decisions. However, the differences are fairly narrow.

“Citizens have a right to access on timber sales,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), “but they don’t have a constitutional right to a five-year delay.”

“For those who have been so worried that we’re going to log the forests to death, they have [instead] watched them burn to death,” added Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico). “This finally opens the door to significant land management reforms.”

John Skorburg is an economist and managing editor of Budget & Tax News. His email address is [email protected].