California’s History of Fire Prevention and Safety

Photo by Graeme Jackson

Jade Martinez-Pogue
National Beat Reporter

On Oct. 31, the Maria Fire ignited around 6 p.m. in Ventura County, burning close to 9,500 acres of land previously burned seven times in the past 52 years. With the Kincade Fire burning up north, California is in the midst of another destructive fire season.

While the cause of the Maria Fire is still under investigation, it has already made a lasting impact and has caused disturbing flashbacks for the residents of surrounding areas. Fourth year UCSB student Bethany Lyche and her family have been evacuated from their home in Thousand Oaks five times — two of those times being in the last two years.

“Growing up, fires were an almost guaranteed part of Octobers. I used to joke with my cousins that we know it’s Halloween-time once we start smelling the smoke,” Lyche said in an interview with The Bottom Line.

Brush fires have been occurring in California for thousands of years, but the recent influx of residents in areas that were not as populated before has put California at an increased risk for damage during fire season. Bryant Baker, conservation director for the Los Padres National Forest Watch, pointed out that thousands of homes have been built in high-fire severity zones; areas that have burned frequently and are at increased risk.

“Human activity has drastically increased fire frequency in our region due to sprawling development and an associated surge in fire ignitions,” Baker said in an interview with The Bottom Line. “Fire suppression over the last century has been largely unsuccessful in limiting the consequential increase in burned area.”

He also noted that high-intensity wildfires are a natural feature of chaparral landscapes, such as the Los Padres National Forest. The chaparral is adapted to the fire regime, meaning infrequent and high intensity, but not fire itself. Though with the area burning so frequently in recent years, there is not enough time for the vegetation to grow back in between fires. This is detrimental because a variety of more flammable non-native grasses and weeds have grown in their place.

The damage of fires reach far further than just the destruction of ecosystems. Because of her first-hand experience with fires, Lyche has seen health issues, from Valley Fever to PTSD, develop in her community as a result of these fires. Families have been forced to choose between  trying to rebuild their homes and regain everything they lost, or leaving their town all together. Major insurance companies in Ventura County have dropped clients from fire insurance due to the high risk and fire history in the area.

These yearly natural disasters in California have gained national attention. In a recent tweet by President Trump on Nov. 3, he stated that he will not be giving out any more federal government aid to California for fire recovery and prevention.

“The Governor of California has done a terrible job of forest management. I told him from the first day we met that he must ‘clean’ his forest floors,” the tweet said. 

The tweet was followed by two more tweets criticizing Governor Newsom and announcing the discontinuance of funding.

“Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing- and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor,” said Trump’s tweet. 

In reaction, Newsom pointed out that Trump’s disbelief in climate change makes him unqualified to speak on this topic.

“You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation,” Newsom said in reply to the President’s thread.

When asked about his thoughts on this interaction, Bryant Baker points out that Trump has been “all over the place” with this issue and made similar remarks last fire season. He noted that all the major fires haven’t been occurring in forested areas, making Trump’s statement irrelevant to the topic.

“It keeps coming back that this is some sort of forest management problem, but this is a much more complex issue,” Baker said.

Many causes of recent wildfires have been accredited to shortages in electric wiring in the mountains. The massive Camp Fire in 2018, which killed 85 people and destroyed about 19,000 homes and other buildings in Northern California, was caused by electrical transmission lines and faulty equipment. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was faulted for this fire and racked up an estimated $30 billion in liabilities. 

To try and prevent another devastating natural disaster, PG&E recently implemented a power shutoff in Northern California affecting about 179,000 customers. These shutoffs are classified as Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS, and are enforced in dry conditions with gust winds that create a heightened fire risk. 

“When you really look at these power and utility companies, you can go back several decades to see there has been a lot of failure to maintain and modernize their equipment,” said Baker. “It has become a serious problem.”

To prevent natural disaster tragedies from creating long-lasting damage and to make them more containable, Baker suggests putting more money into retrofitting existing homes with fire-safe material such as double-paned windows. He also questions whether or not county government and cities should even be approving new developments in areas that have been burned historically and are difficult to defend.

“We still have a lot that we have to learn from the last few years and the last few decades of fire damage,” Baker said.

A lot of work is still essential in creating safer climates in California during fire season and it is important to remember the very real and vast repercussions of California wildfires.

“A lot of people hear about fires in the news, and that coverage only lasts for as long as the fire is active,” said Lyche. “But for those who have experienced and been directly affected by the destruction of these fires, the actual duration of the fire is only one aspect of the tragedy.”