Parts of the western United States look like scenes from an apocalyptic movie—a red-orange tinge across everything, literally blotting out the sun, as more than three million acres burn.
The fires are running rampant, despite firefighters’ best efforts, across California, Oregon, and Washington state. The human cost is huge: 35 people have already died, and more than 4,000 homes have burned. Yet these fires could have been stopped before they got this big, were it not for over-restrictive regulations that have made necessary forest management techniques impossible.
Take controlled burns: fires that are lit on purpose, intentionally burning tinder to keep potentially larger, unintentional wildfires from finding fuel. Especially since the 1960s, efforts to extinguish all fires—even natural, low-impact forest fires that serve as nature’s equivalent of a controlled burn—have made forests more susceptible to larger fires and have made controlled burns more and more necessary.
But the regulatory requirements one must meet before starting a controlled burn are complex and lengthy. According to Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation and an adjunct fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center, the National Environmental Policy Act requires “a couple-thousand-page document analyzing every single conceivable impact to the environment that the plan might have.” This is a public process, Wood adds, that “often results in litigation.” There’s even more paperwork when the controlled burn might overlap with areas designated as critical habitat for an endangered species.
“What you’ll often find,” Wood says, “is that there are projects which have been extremely well-vetted, which have been years in the work, there will be a 5,000-page document, which no one could conceivably ever read because it’s so long and complicated, but then the project will still get put on hold for an indefinite period of time, because some special interest group filed a lawsuit.” So much time is spent considering the ramifications of an action; little is spent considering the impact of doing nothing.
From 1999 to 2017, an average of 13,000 acres of California were subjected to controlled burns each year. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published a report arguing that California needs to burn 20 million acres of forest in order to restore forest health.
The Clean Air Act of 1990 creates another obstacle. The law treat the smoke from a controlled, prescribed burn as a pollutant that must be analyzed and permitted before the burn can be done. The smoke from a wildfire is not similarly scrutinized. But needless to say, the environmental impact of a multi-state wildfire is much larger than that of a smaller controlled burn.
There is no magic bullet when it comes to the issue of preventing wildfires. But if we want to stop disasters of the scale, state and federal governments need to rethink forest management. They could start by easing the regulatory burden upon proven techniques.
Sam Rutzick is the Reason Foundation’s Burton C. Gray Journalism intern for the fall of 2020. This article first appeared at Reason.com.