CA Fire Budget Misguided


Large blazes like the Camp Fire which leveled this McDonald’s in Paradise CA are driven by extreme fire weather, particularly wind. Active forest management including thinning and prescribe fire does nothing to prevent such blazes. Photo George Wuerthner 

Recently California Governor Newsom came out with a proposed fire budget of over a billon dollars. Unfortunately, like so many politicians, his budget emphasizes “active forest management” which includes thinning and prescribe fire to reduce the presumed “excess fuels” on public lands.

One can forgive Governor Newsom for his budget emphasis as he is likely depending on CAL Fire and the US Forest Service for his fire information. These bureaucracies see firefighting and fire “prevention” as a way to justify their existence and grow their budgets.

Most wildfires result in a mosaic pattern of charred and unburned patches as seen here in the 257,000 acre Rim Fire that charred lands near Yosemite NP, CA. An important observation is large areas of the Rim Fire occurred at high-severity fire even in fuels-reduced forests with restored fire regimes.  Photo George Wuerthner 

A consistent theme of thinning and prescribed fire advocates is that such “active forest management” will preclude wildfires that are threatening communities. Active forest management including thinning and prescribed burns may make people feel good, but it is largely ineffective in protecting communities.

What drives all large blazes are specific weather conditions that include drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and most importantly, wind. If you do not have such extreme fire weather conditions, you will not get a large fire. Indeed, most of all, wildfires self-extinguish because the weather conditions are not conducive to spread.

That is an important qualifier. The majority of all fires never grow large, no matter how much fuel may be found on the site if the weather conditions are not conducive for fire spread. There is ample evidence that most fires remain small whether they are “suppressed” or not.

What is driving all large fires in the West is experiencing severe drought. California, for instance, is experiencing the second more severe drought in the past 1200 years. It is ridiculous to assume that fire would behave the same way it did when the climate was cool and moist as it was throughout much of the last century. With climate warming, ignitions are more frequent and fire spreads more rapidly.

Of 235 backcountry blazes in Yellowstone between 1972 and 1987, all went out without suppression. Photo George Wuerthner 

A study in Yellowstone National Park between 1972 and 1987 allowed 235 backcountry fires to burn without suppression. Of these blazes, 222 never got larger than 5 acres, and most were an acre or less. And all 235 self-extinguished without any suppression efforts.

In 1988 more than 1.5 million acres burned in the Yellowstone area. Was there suddenly more fuel in 1988 than in 1972 or even 1987? No! What changed is that Yellowstone experienced the driest summer on record. Internal moisture of trees dropped to 1-2%. Winds blow more than 50 mph. Even 10,000 fire fighters could not suppress the fires. What stopped the 88 fires was snowfall on Sept. 11th.

Another review of wildfire in the Rocky Mountains found that between 1980-2003, a total of 56,320 fires burned over 9 million acres. About 98% of these fires (55,220) burned less than 500 acres and accounted for 4% of the total area burned. By contrast, 2% of all fires accounted for 96% of the acreage burned. And 0.1% (50) of blazes were responsible for half of the acres charred.

The 280,000 acre Thomas Fire by Santa Barbara is typical of many blazes in California in that it burned primarily in chaparral which “active forest management” won’t influence. Photo George Wuerthner 

Even in a major fire year such as 2020, where more than 4 million acres burned in California alone, the majority of all acreage charred was due to a few blazes. Only five fire complexes out of over 9,600 fires across California (approximately 0.05%) accounted for nearly 82% of the structures destroyed or damaged across the state that year. Furthermore, about 0.2% of all fires in California last year accounted for about 84% of the total burned acreage in the state.

Such statistics point out the critical point that nearly all wildfires are insignificant. They don’t “destroy” forests or homes. They remain small because without the proper fire weather conditions, ignitions will not spread, and the majority sputter out.

These statistics also demonstrate that thinning/logging is ineffective in controlling the very fires threatening human communities. Moreover, in California, about half of the blazes were in chaparral, savanna woodlands, or grasslands, not in forests where thinning is advocated.

Even in forested stands, the percentage of fires that occurred in forests, blazes in conifer stands accounted for 35% of all acreage.

The 2020 North Fire Complex, California’s largest blaze in 2020, burned 318,000 acres, mainly in a mixed-conifer forest in the northern Sierra. Much of the area was commercial timberland that had been clearcut within the last couple of decades. The rest of the acreage charred was on USFS land in the Plumas National Forest.

The North Fire burned through large areas that had been commercially and non-commercially thinned, burned, or otherwise managed. It also burned through some extensive regions that had experienced fire back in 2008.

California’s largest fires in recent years—including the Creek Fire and August Complex in 2020 and the Camp Fire in 2018—burned through large vegetation management project areas in national forests and on private or state lands.

None of these “fuel reductions” stopped the blazes.  And worse for communities, a number of studies have found that “treated” lands burn with higher severity than natural landscapes.

Thinned forest and clearcut (in the background) near Chester, California. Logging or what is termed “active forest management” may make people feel good, but such efforts seldom preclude large blazes that always driven by extreme fire weather. Photo George Wuerthner 

All of this suggests that the emphasis on “active forest management,” whether prescribed burns or thinning, does not work on the very fires we hope to contain. Indeed, there is evidence that logging/thinning can enhance fire spread by opening up the forest to greater drying and wind penetration.

California Governor Newsom’s billion-dollar fire budget priorities are backward. It provides less than 4% of those funds for “community hardening.” An effective fire strategy would include a massive reduction in logging/thinning and a much greater emphasis on creating homes and communities that can survive a fire.





    This article is so correct! Even when weather at the time of fire is humid (e.g., deep marine layer), the fire will take off due to drought-dried vegetation. Emphasis should be placed on creating homes and communities so they can an survive a fire. This includes the capacity to wet homes before flames and embers reach the town, which implies a lot more pre-staging of water tankers (land and air) and other resources in anticipation of fire starts during critical weather conditions.

  2. Evan Frost Avatar
    Evan Frost

    While I don’t disagree with some of the primary arguments made here, there are some problems here: First, the “North Fire Complex, California’s largest blaze in 2020” — was not the largest 2020 fire in CA. Several others — August Complex, CZU, LNU, Creek Fires — were significantly larger. Blazes at this scale, frequency, and intensity are unprecedented in the modern era. Second, just because a wildfire burns through areas of past logging/thinning does not mean these activities are always ineffectual in influencing fire behavior. Your statements to this effect are a gross oversimplification. Any fire of significant size in CA will burn through a mosaic of lands that vary from intensively managed / heavily disturbed to relatively undisturbed, and to recognize this does not say anything definitive about efficacy of fuels reduction/thinning (almost all federal forest management has been driven by economic return, not fuels abatement). Third, you seem to be downplaying if not avoiding altogether the game-changing nature of altered fire behavior due to climate change, which is dramatically altering fire dynamics in last couple decades. Implying that all wildfire is ecologically good or “normal” is misleading because these landscapes have lost tremendous resiliency due to centuries of development (logging, grazing, roads, etc) and are much less able to accommodate large-scale, high intensity fires like are occurring almost every year. Unfortunately fire does pose a threat to conserving biodiversity in CA now — to suggest otherwise is not consistent with available science.

    1. Jim Dundee Avatar
      Jim Dundee

      I disagree with your reply. First, author has demonstrated knowledge through statistics. If accurately reported they don’t lie. Second, bureaucrats love to spend money, they grown used to feeding out of the money trough. The milli fire in Oregon a few years ago started in old burn area. The Forrest service let it go for a few days, the wind kicked up,and we we’re off to the races.
      Fact: if humidity, temperature, wind, moisture are all working together nothing can stop a fire,
      Weather is the key. Not bureaucratic managers
      Or big budgets. I applaud the author for stating the obvious.

    2. TED MACKECHNIE Avatar

      True, the North Complex was the 5th largest, but still in the category of large. The author’s point is that large fires burn unabated even through actively managed areas because of the prominent combination of drought and red flag weather conditions. Most fires stay small because they lack that combination, and indeed self extinguish with change in weather. But it is the few and the large fires that take out communities, so the point is, quit spending money on the unstoppable and start fortifying the towns.

  3. Beeline Avatar

    Folks should read the L.A. Times analysis of the Camp Fire which destroyed Paradise CA. You can find it at

    This is the best most comprehensive report I have found. The Butte County Board of Supervisors totally failed the people of Paradise.

    Imagine a system that gives a two minute warning before your town catches fire and roads that were so inefficient that it would take 8 hours to evacuate the town even with good visibility.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Beeline – Just tossing it out there – imagine people who are not. prepared. AT ALL. for living in towns or homes, surrounded by trees, brush, a canyon, mountainous areas? etc. who seldom give any thought, AT ALL, to their surroundings if a wildfire should happen to roar through their neck of the “woods?” And roar they have, over the past couple of decades……..

      And how many times have many of us, anxious… around the country, witnessed and felt awful about these scenes of destruction to homes and wildlife habitat (on the national news) and then wonder why these fires continue to happen, over and over and over again, especially in certain parts of CA?

      1. Beeline Avatar

        Hi Nancy: In the case of Paradise CA the Butte County board of supervisors had been warned by the Butte County Grand Jury that the county fire plan was a joke. The supervisors chose to ignore the grand juries report. Another case of a real estate development minded government entity flipping off science and documented fire history.


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George Wuerthner