A California Town’s Fire-Protection Plans Hit Red Tape, Then the Flames Came

Butte County volunteer firefighter Reed Rankin views the burned remains of Butte County Fire Station 61 during the North Complex fire in Berry Creek on Tuesday. (Photo: Josh Edelson for The Wall Street Journal)

(By Jim Carlton, The Wall Street Journal) BERRY CREEK, Calif.—As the smoke from the nearby fire-devastated town of Paradise cleared in 2018, local officials were trying to gain approval of forest-thinning projects to help this mountain community avoid a similar fate.

Nearly two years after they first applied for approval from the state of California, the contract for one of the projects went out for bidding on Sept. 4. At the same time, work was about to start on the other after a monthslong wait caused in part by the coronavirus pandemic.

Then just four days later, the North Complex fire roared through this community of 2,500, wiping out most of the homes and leaving at least 10 people dead, more than one-third of the total fatalities from wildfires this year in California.

“I tried to work with anyone who would listen to avoid what happened,” Denise Bethune, a Berry Creek fire safety coordinator, said from her son’s residence in the nearby city of Chico, where she and her husband have been living since their two-bedroom home burned to the ground.

Among the factors [believed to be] contributing to this year’s exceptional wildfire season are climate change, which causes higher temperatures and longer droughts, and poor forest management, according to scientific experts. State and local governments haven’t done enough to thin dry brush and dead trees that burn easily around populated areas, they say.

Few places have felt the consequences more severely than Butte County, a rural area north of Sacramento where 19 large fires have scorched some 400,000 acres since 1999.

Earlier this week, Loren Gill drove into what remains of Berry Creek in an SUV to pick through some of the rubble of what had been a park community center. Nearby lay the ruins of Berry Creek Elementary, with a sign of its mascot, a Native American brave, charred.

“This is unbelievable,” Mr. Gill, 78 years old, said as he drove past dozens of leveled homes, some with only the chimneys still intact. “Just a nightmare.”

The Butte County Fire Safe Council on Oct. 26, 2018, received an $836,365 grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, to remove trees and brush from 234 acres. The plan was to create fire breaks along two of the main evacuation roads and for a development of homes around Lake Madrone.

Getting approval to spend the money would take almost two years.

While it is impossible to determine how Berry Creek would have fared if the thinning projects had been implemented, local officials said videos of other nearby areas where trees and brush were trimmed showed lower flames that moved slower.

Bald Rock and Rockerfeller roads, the two evacuation routes, now have charred cars and trucks on them. Around Lake Madrone, more than 50 homes were destroyed.

“Somebody dropped the ball,” said Becky North, 41, whose family of four lost the house they lived in since building it in 2011. “I think some homes would have been saved.”

After the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise on Nov. 8, 2018, officials of the Butte County Fire Safe Council—which acts as an umbrella group for fire safety in the area—urged state lawmakers to streamline regulatory red tape.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom responded to the Camp Fire with a slew of directives, including fast-tracked authority for 35 thinning projects to protect 200 communities. Cal Fire said some of the projects had helped slow fires including one in Butte County completed last December.

The Berry Creek projects languished as the Butte County Fire Safe Council struggled to gain landowner approvals for the thinning, a requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. One of the strictest such laws in the nation, CEQA makes it easy for local residents and interest groups to oppose construction and development projects.

In addition, Cal Fire officials kicked back some of the paperwork filed by the local leaders because it had been improperly formatted. “It’s about lawsuits and if there is not enough information for us to sign we have to ask for more,” said Dave Derby, unit forester for Cal Fire’s Butte area.

A spokesman for Gov. Newsom said his administration is committed to doing more forest-clearing work and that additional projects will be announced in the coming weeks.

To help move the Lake Madrone thinning, which was planned for 54 acres, Butte County Fire Safe Council officials decided to split that environmental review from the one for the evacuation routes because most landowners had signed on, said Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council.

It took 17 months to get the final go ahead from Cal Fire in March. Then a new problem hit: the coronavirus pandemic, which Ms. Bethune said put some of that work on hold.

After approval for the plan to create fire breaks along the evacuation roads came in July, Ms. DeAnda said her group had hoped to start both projects this fall and complete them within a month.

“We were just waiting on the contractor to get started,” she said.

The fire has effectively negated the need for that fuel work, now. The forest of pine and oaks surrounding the town was burned so severely that in some places only skeleton trees are left, devoid of leaves.

Volunteer Fire Chief Reed Rankin, who lost his own home, said all he and other first responders could do was evacuate people ahead of a firestorm driven by 40 miles-per-hour winds.

“We’ve got to rethink how we are going to manage the forests,” said Mr. Rankin, after sifting through the rubble of a destroyed fire station. “I’m still at a loss, still numb.”

Published at wsj .com. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from The Wall Street Journal. The article above appeared in the September 18, 2020, print edition as ‘Plans for Fire Protection Hit Red Tape in California.’


1. What is Cal Fire?

2. a) How long did it take for the town of Berry Creek, California to get approval from the state for forest-thinning projects?
b) Berry Creek is in Butte County. What was the Butte County Fire Safety Council planning to do with money they received in Oct. 2018 from Cal Fire?

3. What happened in Berry Creek just a few days before forest-thinning work was about to start?

4. a) According to experts cited by the WSJ reporter, what two factors have caused the extreme fire season?
b) How has poor forest management by state and local governments led to the extreme fires?

5. a) What is the California Environmental Quality Act?
b) How did it delay the forest thinning work in Berry Creek?
c) For what reason did Cal Fire officials reject some of the paperwork filed by local leaders?

6. Volunteer Fire Chief Reed Rankin, who lost his own home, said, “We’ve got to rethink how we are going to manage the forests.” What do you think local and state government should do regarding forest management? Should any laws be changed? Explain your answers.

7. Consider this: Steven Greenhut writes in Spectator:

…Governor Newsom and his predecessors have failed to take simple, tangible steps to deal with the wildfire situation whatever the broader climate is doing.

The main issue (to control the fires) involves land management. Governor Newsom [acknowledged] that problem. His focus, however, was not on nuts-and-bolts governance, but climate change. “That’s one point [land management], but it’s not the point,” he said.

By the way, California has passed some of the most far-reaching climate-change-battling policies in the world, and yet here we are, facing another fire season that has destroyed property, lives, and our air.

The issue isn’t particularly complex. Because of the state’s environmental fixations, California has been less apt to clear away underbrush, thin out forests, and allow prescribed burns. “Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year,” according to a recent investigative report in the progressive ProPublica. “Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres.” That article truly is a must-read.

Watch the video under “Resources” below. What is your reaction to the information about aging power lines/infrastructure? What do you think of the assertions made about the causes of California wildfires? Does this information change your view? If you are concerned with climate change, what do you think about these other factors contributing to / causing wildfires?


The following is excerpted from a 2019 commentary at Forbes:

This is California’s big secret:

It’s not climate change that’s burning up the forests, killing people, and destroying hundreds of homes; it’s decades of environmental mismanagement that has created a tinderbox of unharvested timber, dead trees, and thick underbrush.

This dangerous situation attracted attention from President Donald Trump who, during the height of California’s wildfires last year insisted that

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.”

The irony is that forest management is so bad on public lands that a new report, ordered by the California legislature in 2010, shows that the portion of California’s National Forests protected from timber harvesting is now a net contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fires and trees killed by insects and disease.

  • Every year about 3.8 billion board feet of new timber grows in the Golden State, capturing almost one metric ton of CO2 per acre in the productive timberland areas. Trees grow until they die, burn, or get harvested. If harvesting declines, tree mortality and fires increase. It’s the tyranny of math.
  • In the early 1990s, a series of restrictions were placed on logging in the West to protect the Spotted Owl. As it turned out, nature was more complicated than expected, with owl numbers continuing to decline—even after the California timber harvest plummeted—due to predation from other raptors.
  • In the meantime, the harvest fell below the growth rate in the 1990s, to about 1.5 billion board feet per year over the past decade. The tree harvest on federal lands is now one-tenth of what it was in 1988, President Reagan’s last full year in office.

The excerpt above is from a commentary by Chuck DeVore published at Forbes .com on Feb. 25, 2019. Mr. DeVore is the VP of the Texas Public Policy Foundation VP and aformer California legislator.

Scientists today have two opposing views on global warming:

  • The earth’s climate is warming as a result of human actions; an extreme change in the earth’s temperature is going to occur, caused by greenhouse gas emitted by the world’s use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas).  This temperature change will result in catastrophic problems in the environment. Humans must drastically reduce the consumption of fossil fuels immediately.  To prevent this man-made climate change, countries need to restrict energy use (reduce use of gas and oil).
    Progressives/liberals generally hold this view.
  • Human activity does not affect the earth’s temperature.  Burning fossil fuels (gas, coal and oil) does not cause climate change.  The earth’s climate changes naturally, but not so much that it will cause a change of catastrophic proportions.  An extreme change in the earth’s climate will not happen.  There are natural warming and cooling trends over time.  In the 1970’s a coming ice age was predicted, but now that scare has been replaced with the current global warming scare.
    Conservatives generally hold this view.

The overwhelming majority of media reports support man-caused catastrophic climate change as fact, and rarely report the opposing view, except to call anyone who disagrees with the progressive view “climate deniers.”

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