The following is a transcript of an investigative report on Full Measure News. Click on the link at the end of the transcript to watch the video story.
This year, California’s wildfires are being called the worst in state’s history. The governor and others claim climate change is the chief culprit. But Lisa Fletcher has been tracking the golden state’s fires for several years and finds the real problem might be something else.
Lisa Fletcher: There is no debate that this California fire season is historic in devastation, in size and in costs.
Over 3-million acres burned by the end of September, and that’s with the majority of the fires still burning out of control.
The fires have been frightening in their intensity. They have created unearthly scenes but California has had a fire problem for decades. In the past 30 years, nearly 20-million acres have been destroyed by wildfires.
In 2016 we went to Big Sur, site of the most expensive California wildfire to date.
Then we found one of the problems wasn’t global but very small, a bark beetle that was turning forests into dead zones.
Mike Lindberry: They’re estimating 60-million trees are dead standing right now all over the state.
Lisa: And what is the translation for a firefighter?
Lindberry: The translation for a firefighter is one, faster moving more deadly fires and the fact even while they’re fighting these fires there’s the danger of the trees dropping on them at any point.
Lisa: And you already had one firefighter killed with a tree dropping on them.
Lindberry: There was a firefighter killed last week from a tree dropping on him, that’s correct.
Lisa: Forest fires produce a double jeopardy, after crews extinguish the flames the barren landscape creates a threat for mudslides and poisoning local water.
Robert Bonnie: We don’t have the resources we need to invest in reforestation and we have a substantial backlog. I think it might be as much as 5 million acres of areas where we’d like to plant trees post fire and we essentially can’t.
Lisa: We spoke with Robert Bonnie, who was then head of the U.S. forest service. It’s the agency in charge of fighting fires but also preventing them. Bonnie told us year after year wildfires are burning through more budget dollars.
Robert Bonnie: It was close to $3 billion last year, out of an agency budget that's about $5 billion.
Lisa: According to FEMA, every dollar put toward prevention equals four dollars in disaster cost savings for taxpayers. It’s one of the reasons Bonnie has spent years urging congress to treat fires like natural disasters. Doing so would shift the cost from the forest service to FEMA, adding firefighting to emergency funding used for hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.
In 2018, congress was set to vote on a disaster-aid bill that would do that, lawmakers delayed that vote to avoid a government shutdown.
Lisa: And here we are in 2020, California’s fire apocalypse brought political opposites together President Trump and California Governor Gavin Newsom, who do not agree on one thing.
Newsom: “Please respect, and I know you do, the difference of opinion out here as it relates to this fundamental issue, on the issue of climate change.”
Lisa: But what California forest experts have been telling us for years came to the table.
President Trump: So they were largely dead, or the area was largely dead in terms of the trees?
Mr. Porter: They die from the beetle kill, and now they’re being burned up by the fires.
Lisa: And the issue of land management, stopping fires before they happen finally got the federal funding to bring changes that may leave an impact far beyond this fire season.
Newsom: “Looking past almost a thousand plus years that we have not done justice on our forest management, your administration just entered into its first of a kind commitment over the next 20 years to double our vegetation management."
LISA: California received even more ‘fire management assistance grants' through the President’s Disaster Relief Fund. This means California will be reimbursed up to 75-percent for their fire suppression and forest management costs.
Sharyl: Will this new money make a difference in future California fires?
Lisa: Many firefighters on the ground say it should.