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Last year, the Thomas fire in California’s central coast region made the national news night, after night, after night, as it became the biggest fire in state history. Combined with several other outsized wildfires, 2017 shattered state records for both wildfire-related losses and the sheer amount of money spent to suppress them.
What many Californians may not fully appreciate is that the state government was sitting on millions of dollars in recent years that, if used for its intended purpose of fire prevention, including clearing out flammable brush in rural areas, could have either avoided or reduced the extent of the damage caused during the state’s wildfires in 2017. Jim Miller of Tribune News Services broke the story in October 2015, long before the first embers of the Thomas fire were lit (via Governing):
Amid a drought that has created bone-dry conditions across much of California’s wildland area, a state fire prevention account has ended recent fiscal years with tens of millions of dollars unspent.
The money has been generated by a contentious, 4-year-old fee pushed through by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats over the objections of Republicans and rural property owners. The state collected more than $300 million through June and spent about $260 million, including roughly $228 million on administration and statewide prevention activities, vegetation clearing, defensible space inspections and other programs.
About $22 million went to a state tax agency to cover collection costs.
But as fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres this year, the state ended the fiscal year in June with an estimated $43 million in fee money left over.
“We made a lot of people in the Legislature take a vote on this fee that they never really liked. But then to collect the money and just sit on it, and not deploy it in ways to help make those communities safer, is just silly,” said Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives at Pacific Forest Trust, a forest protection group.
More than 800,000 property owners pay the fee, most of them $117.33 a year for each habitable structure.
The money is intended to support fire prevention activities in the almost one-third of California where the state has the primary firefighting responsibility. Nearly three-quarters of the 31 million-acre area _ mostly privately owned watershed, rangeland and forested areas outside city limits _ presents a very high or high fire risk.
The state continued collecting its fire prevention fees through the end of its 2016-2017 fiscal year on June 30, 2017. On July 25, 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 398 for the primary purpose of extending the state’s controversial cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions regime, where a small provision within the bill suspended the requirement for California property owners to pay the state’s fire prevention fee until the year 2031.
Perhaps with the official end of California’s four year long drought earlier in 2017, California’s state politicians may have thought it would be safe to do away with the state’s fire prevention fees that they couldn’t do enough to spend.
But 2017 turned out to be the year that they needed to, where the state’s politicians have instead chosen to fall into the proverbial firefighting trap:
The “firefighting trap” is a term often used by business managers to describe a shortsighted cycle of problem-solving: dealing with “fires,” or problems, as they arise, but failing to address the underlying cause, thereby increasing the chance that the same problem will crop up in the future.
Researchers at MIT’s Engineering Systems Division have now looked at the original inspiration for this “quick-fix” management strategy: firefighting itself. They combined regional fire data, such as the number of fires and the amount of land burned per year, with interviews conducted with fire managers, policymakers, and academics to draw up a model illustrating the relationships that contribute to forest-fire management.
Much like in business, they found fire management can fall into the firefighting trap: Energy and resources are spent mostly on fire suppression — putting out fires in the moment — while less attention is devoted to fire prevention, such as clearing brush and building fire lanes during the off-season.
In particular, the team identified a factor that exacerbates the firefighting trap: instinctive, automatic reactions to particularly damaging fire seasons. They found that after severe fires, policymakers — driven by public pressure — funnel more funds into fire suppression for the next season. While this may put people temporarily at ease, this attention to fire suppression may undermine prevention efforts. The result, counterintuitively, is even worse fires the following season, due to the buildup of fire-prone materials such as dried tinder and dead trees.
Welcome to what Governor Jerry Brown is cynically calling California’s “new normal”.