Push to promote ‘defensible space’ in homes at fire risk faulted

The Camp Fire rages in November in Butte County.

After the deadliest and most destructive four-year stretch of wildfires in modern California history, Gov. Gavin Newsom took office in January determined to escalate state efforts to limit fire threats and to adopt safer building and fire maintenance practices. Within days, he promised $305 million in additional funding and tasked the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, with identifying the populated areas most at risk and in need of state attention.

Cal Fire responded in March with a 28-page report that identified 35 priority sites. Many were in Northern California in elevated, forested areas. Several were part of the Bay Area, including in Orinda and Woodside. The agency has already begun work on removing flammable brush, building fire breaks to slow the spread of blazes and improving escape routes.

“California needs an all-of-the-above approach,” declared Cal Fire Director Thom Porter.

But Cal Fire officials also told the San Francisco Chronicle that while the additional resources the state was providing were welcome, they still weren’t enough given the fire risks that California faced. Citing the “massive backlog of forest management work,” Cal Fire said a long-term commitment was crucial.

Cal Fire far short of 33 percent home inspection goal

Three months later, a new report has underscored Cal Fire’s warning of the inadequacy of state efforts at a time in which as many as 3 million homes in the Golden State are in areas with elevated fire risks. KQED, the Northern California Public Broadcasting Service news agency, reports that Cal Fire isn’t coming close to meeting its goals of helping homeowners build “defensible spaces” around their structures that limit fire risks. The report found that Cal Fire did far worse in helping homeowners in unincorporated areas at high risk in Northern and Central California than local governments did helping homeowners in Southern California.

Lake County in the state’s Wine Country was devastated by 2018’s Mendocino Complex blaze, which scorched a record 459,000 acres. Lake County officials say 45 percent of its land was burned. But Cal Fire said it was only able to inspect 12 percent of homes last year in Lake, Sonoma and Napa Counties to ensure that flammable brush and other materials were removed. The agency’s goal is 33 percent.

Hundreds of miles to the southeast in the Sierra Nevada region – home to tens of millions of dead and very flammable trees – Cal Fire was able to inspect only 6 percent of homes in 2018.

Cal Fire officials have said with fire season lasting 50 days longer or more than it used to in the Golden State, they have no choice but to prioritize their limited resources by placing fighting active wildfires ahead of fire safety efforts.

But the agency is trying to do more to promote defensible space. It has hired six fire crews this year and plans to add four more by summer 2020 which focus only on reducing flammable vegetation and waste.

Newsom has already declared fire emergency

For his part, Newsom on March 22 took a step that would have seemed bizarre in past decades. Though no serious fires were then reported in California, he declared an ongoing formal state of emergency over wildfire risks.


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  1. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 17 June, 2019, 09:57

    The solution to this madness is simple: stop building in at-risk places. Local governments want the tax revenue so they approve all kinds of housing and shopping projects wherever a developer wishes.

    This encourages others to speculate with adjacent or nearby land, and pretty soon there is a whole city in the wilderness without sufficient fire or police protection. Then, when it all burns down or is washed away in a heavy storm cycle, the first thing the insurance companies do is agree to pay out money for rebuilding in the same place.

    And then, it happens again, and again, and again.

    There is a word for people who keep doing the same thing over and over without achieving their goal. It is called “insanity”.

    If Newsom wanted to do something to reverse the trend toward bigger and worse fire hazards, he would place a moratorium on new construction in our forests, wild places and flood plains as well as set a goal for insurance companies to stop covering rebuilding costs for burned-out or flood-damaged houses.

    Or something along those lines, anyway. It is not the responsibility of taxpayers who live in urban areas to pay for all the damage done to properties in places that should never have been developed in the first place.

    Liberty cannot be maintained in the absence of wisdom.

    Reply this comment
    • David Wiltsee
      David Wiltsee 18 June, 2019, 17:13

      Stop building in at-risk places? Recent history tells us that at-risk places now include areas formerly considered no- or low-risk. And many individuals and neighborhoods within the overly generalized fire prone zone have taken constructive steps to avert fire.

      Reply this comment
  2. Mike
    Mike 17 June, 2019, 14:55

    I can already see how all these public employee agencies, who feed out of the taxpayer trough, are laying the groundwork for a new tax. Same old same old. “We can’t do it – need more tax money and more public employees.” Been hearing and seeing this same old pattern for the 55-years I’ve lived in this state. Glad I’m leaving for good in a few months. You fools who are staying, hold on to your wallets.

    Mike L.

    Reply this comment
    • Janice Stenger
      Janice Stenger 18 June, 2019, 19:01

      Yes and since every homeowner can’t do a thing about the falling lines and collapsing towers of PGE (they started 15 of the 17 fires in N.California in in 2017…this spring already there have been about five small fires because of downed lines in Sonoma cna Napa counties.. As long as PGE stays with the “Run to Fail” model we are in drastic danger and no brush-cutting will save us. In the winter when we used to brush our fire roads on the ranch, we burned the piles of brush in Dec. or January. These days it is almost impossible to get a burn permit because of hundreds of thousands of additional cars polluting the air quality in .our home counties than when we were kids. The problem is population, population, population and while native born Californians have limited their children, 1/5 of the residents wont and continue to have outdated size families.

      Reply this comment
  3. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 19 June, 2019, 10:18

    The longer California cherishes its Boom-Town economic development policies (unlimited growth), the worse things will be for all of us except real-estate speculators, construction-industry moguls, retail chains, local politicians and urban planners.

    I believe in economic Liberty, but I think America has become too dependent upon unlimited growth as an economic model. California is an example of a State where business and government and social reformers conspire to direct development to suit themselves, not society.

    Business understandably wants a profit, government wants tax revenues while being seen to comply with all the laws laid down by voters and higher-level jurisdictions, social reformers want quick-fix band-aids on problems that are mostly caused by the ignorance and foolishness of modern culture.

    The consequences of these short-sighted goals is that our State is losing its beautiful wild places, country-sides, charming 19th & early 20th century towns and cities, agricultural base, water resources, and livability. These are being replaced with government agencies, ugly commercial and residential projects, freeways that are obsolete before they are open to traffic, life-threatening pollution, and a self-absorbed population that has lost its love of Liberty.

    If all we care about is making money, we will never find satisfaction in making money. If our goal is to protect our neighborhoods from destruction by ill-advised development, then we can lay the groundwork for a healthier way to exercise our economic freedoms.

    Read “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America” by Mindy Thompson Fullilove.

    Reply this comment
  4. Jim
    Jim 26 June, 2019, 07:40

    I have to clear 100ft of brush from our ranch structures every year and it absolutely protects us. Cal trans has thick brush right on the edges of highways. All our brush fires come from vehicle fires and cigarettes on the highway. Govt has to follow the same rules they force on us. Cut the brush back from all public roads now.

    Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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