Editorial: The feds own 57% of California forests. When will they finally act to reduce fire risks?

California’s 13 largest wildfires have occurred since the Cedar fire burned 2,820 structures and killed 15 people in San Diego County in October 2003. With the Dixie and Caldor fires front of mind now, it’s maddening to hear lip service from lawmakers and bureaucrats, and see how little has been done to take basic steps to reduce wildfire risks.

Perhaps the most maddening failure of all is the federal government’s refusal to take responsibility for properly maintaining the 57% of California forest land that it owns. It was perverse to hear then-President Donald Trump repeatedly lecture California Gov. Gavin Newsom about his allegedly inept forest management when the federal government has the most forest acreage and the least to be proud of. The decision last week to close all federal forests in California to limit wildfire risks was refreshingly decisive. But it is disappointing that President Joe Biden hasn’t made a firm break from Trump-era fire policies in his eight months in office.

A recent story by Joshua Emerson Smith of The San Diego Union-Tribune detailed how frustrated private forest owners were with the U.S. Forest Service and how it has done little to adopt practices that would minimize the risk of blazes starting on federal land and crossing into private holdings. As the story noted, between environmental laws and pressure from the logging industry, federal forest overseers have felt constrained in what they can do.

But at a fundamental level, the U.S. Forest Service simply never gives enough credence to a basic truth of forest health. A policy of emphasizing fire suppression without active efforts to clear forests of dead trees and other flammable growth makes the chances of huge conflagrations much more likely. This approach also promotes the beetle attacks that have killed an estimated 180 million trees in California over the past decade.

To his credit, Newsom has stepped up efforts to thin state forests. But he needs to reach out to the White House and point out the obvious: Until federal policy on federal land is smarter, California’s ability to reduce wildfires during the climate emergency is limited. Perhaps Vice President Kamala Harris, a Californian, can hammer this message home. A new federal approach is absolutely crucial.