July 29, 2021


Only Common Sense Solutions Can Prevent Forest Fires

By: Kelvey Vander Hart

Fire season is already picking up heat. And it typically blazes from late Spring to early Fall. California, for example, has already witnessed thousands of acres burn – the Dixie fire, their largest thus far, burned more than 181,000 acres to date. Forest fires are becoming increasingly hard to put out, prompting more government action – but more government presence is only going to add more fuel to the fire. To riff on Smokey the Bear’s famous words: “Only common-sense solutions can prevent forest fires.” 

California will continue to be our case study. The five-year average number of forest fires and acres burned, provided by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, increased from 4,835 fires and 202,786 acres in 2017 to 5,856 fires and 446,960 acres in 2020. While there are certainly fluctuations from year to year there are unique circumstances that could prompt increased fire activity, but the 2017 to 2020 averages shows a marked increase. 

Recent steps taken by the state of California toward fire reduction can be easily summarized in five words: more money and more government. Earlier this year, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) announced half a billion dollars dedicated to wildfire prevention. While the appropriations had bipartisan support, comments like that from Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron (Escondido), who did support the appropriations, expressed frustration with the government’s tactics: “I believe that we as a Legislature could focus more on prevention, on fuel reduction, and forest management projects.” 

The California State Legislature is also constantly proposing wildfire legislation. California Senate Bull 63 and California Assembly Bill 9 being the most recent examples. These bills hint at forest management, but they are mostly focused on state authorities, grant authorization, and community regulation.

At the heart of all these bills is the thought that government action is going to be the thing to solve California’s wildfire problem. But the government – and by that, I mean both the federal government and all 50 states, not just California – has been trying to solve this problem for decades. Maybe it’s time to change course and try other tactics. 

Where Can Common Sense Help Here? 

While there are many schools of thought regarding wildfire reduction, there is some data that provides insight as to where resources should be focused. In a recent report titled “Fix America’s Forests: Reforms to Restore National Forests and Tackle the Wildfire Crisis,” PERC researchers Holly Fretwell and Jonathan Wood wrote: 

“One study led by Forest Service scientists estimated that of four factors driving fire severity in the western United States, live fuel ‘was the most important,’ accounting for 53 percent of average relative influence, while climate accounted for 14 percent.  Whatever the future course of climate change policy, the fact remains that many national forests have already accumulated decades worth of underbrush and fuels, escalating present fire risk. Forest restoration can help reduce these risks in the short run by creating and maintaining healthy, resilient forests and maximizing the ecological, environmental, and economic benefits people derive from them. By promoting landscapes with healthy forests and diverse forest types, restoration projects can reduce the risk of megafires and provide other conservation benefits.” 

So what’s standing in the way of common-sense forest restoration projects? Oftentimes, it’s regulatory red tape from the government. There are also bureaucratic limitations on market-based solutions like commercial logging, which when done sustainably, could be a powerful force for sensible forest management. Data points are currently showing that the government is making fires worse – it’s time for agencies to get out of their own way and turn toward sensible solutions, cutting red tape, and letting market forces also influence forest management. 

Forest fires are not going away any time soon. We can expect them to rage across the West for the rest of the year and the years to come. But we CAN start working on fire reduction, leading to better outcomes in the future. It will not be increased bureaucracy that gets this done – it will be common-sense solutions that get the government out of the line of fire.