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InsiderOnline Blog: October 2007

California Fires: The Role of Environmental Regulations

Why so many fires in Southern California? The Washington Post reports:

As much as they blame Santa Ana “devil winds” and record dryness, ecologists, climate researchers and firefighters say that the towering, uncontrollable conflagrations of the past week gorged themselves on huge stocks of natural fuel that were the result of a decades-old policy of fighting every blaze in sight, including small blazes that, left alone, would have burned themselves out.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, acknowledged the paradox of the consensus he was about to state: “We fight too many fires.”

At American Thinker, John Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute points to fuel-laden forests as the culprit, too, but Berlau also identifies environmental regulations as the underlying cause. The Endangered Species Act, he says, gets in the way of prudent fire precautions. Says Berlau:

An example of the legal strait jacket that homewoners faced in the areas hit by the fires is the “brush management guide“ on the City of San Diego web site. The confusing instructions state that vegetation within 100 feet of homes in canyon areas “must be thinned and pruned regularly.” But then, the same sentence goes on to state that this must be achieved “without harming native plants, soil or habitats.”

Then in fine print at the bottom of the page, the real kicker comes in:

Brush management is not allowed in coastal sage scrub during the California gnatcatcher nesting season, from March 1st through August 15th. This small bird only lives in coastal sage scrub and is listed as a threatened species by the federal government. Any harm to this bird could result in fines and penalties.

Coastal sage scrub is a low plant ubiquitous near coastal California that grows like a weed under almost any condition. And since gnatcatcher nesting season lasts almost six months, there could be much buildup of sage scrub that becomes hard for homeowners to control. Especially since the maintenance rules severely restrict the use of mechanical brush-clearing devices even when gnat nesting season is over.

Berlau also notes that environmental regulations have played a role in previous waves of California fires, too.

Southern California homes were lost in 1993 after the federal Fish and Wildlife Service told homeowners that mechanical clearing of brush would likely violate the Endangered Species Act. The reason: it could alter the habitat of a newly-listed endangered species called the Stephens kangaroo rat.


California’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, which had been created after wildfires in 2003 by then-Governor Gray Davis and whose members included Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as well as state legislators of both parties, concluded that “habitat preservation and environmental protection have often conflicted with sound fire safe planning.”

Of course, it doesn’t really help kangaroo rats and gnatcatchers to have their habitats destroyed by fire either.

Posted on 10/29/07 06:07 PM by Alex Adrianson

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