Cal Fire fumbles key responsibilities to prevent catastrophic wildfires despite historic budget
Richard A. Wilson is worried about wildfires this summer, amid dry conditions, extreme temperatures, punishing winds and the amplification of climate change.
"We are very vulnerable," the 90-year-old said while looking out the window of his house on Buck Mountain, part of a 3,000-acre cattle ranch spanning Mendocino and Trinity counties that has been in his family for 80 years.
Wilson estimates about 70% of his land — the whole northern end, including grassland, and pine and Douglas fir timberland — has burned in recent years. It was hit by the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire and the 2020 August Complex Fire, both among the largest fires in state history.
"The scale of the fires covered the country in a way we hadn't seen, in size or intensity," Wilson recalled.
Wildfires in California have burned nearly 7 million acres in the last two years alone. It is not only the size of the fires but also the destruction that's breathtaking. In just the 2021 fire season, the Dixie Fire destroyed the town of Greenville and the Caldor Fire devastated the foothills community of Grizzly Flats. Both were the first fires in modern state history to burn across the Sierra Nevada.
This year, Wilson fears, will be dangerous, as well: "We are headed into a tenuous time."
Wilson is not just any worried landowner: He's the former head of Cal Fire, the state department responsible for fighting wildfires and managing forestland.
And while Cal Fire is broadly recognized as a leader in firefighting, Wilson says it is also partly to blame for the looming danger.
When he led the department in the 1990s, he claims it viewed caring for forest health as a primary mission. Foresters are trained to see wooded areas as living ecosystems, and know how to make them more fire-resilient.
But in the years after his tenure, he says the culture changed. Firefighting, not forestry, became the route to advancement.
"And it's now a fire department. A very good fire department. But it's not a forestry department," Wilson said.
Today, Cal Fire is at an inflection point: trying to return to a greater emphasis on fire mitigation and forest health, while still working to protect communities from historic and deadly wildfires. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature lavished the department with record amounts of money for prescribed burns, brush clearing and cutting fuel breaks. But money alone does not solve the problem.
Cal Fire has publicly signaled a commitment to rebalancing its priorities. But a monthslong investigation by The California Newsroom, a public media collaboration, found that the department continues to fumble key responsibilities related to forest management and wildfire mitigation, potentially leaving the state at greater risk of catastrophic fires.
The investigation found:
- The state set aside a record $1.5 billion for wildfire prevention and forest health in 2021. However, Cal Fire's forest management hiring remains stagnant, while its firefighting staffing has ballooned.
- Cal Fire is struggling to track wildfire prevention projects that experts say are desperately needed to protect communities from destructive wildfires. The department still can't determine how many acres of work it completed and funded through grants in the fiscal year ending in June 2021.
- Cal Fire has taken years to implement laws passed by the state Legislature. A program, required under state law to bolster the prescribed-burn workforce, suffered nearly a year of delay. So far, only two burn bosses have been certified, slowing the pace of protective projects. Experts say this delay has caused a loss of opportunities to enact community-protecting work.
- For at least four years, Cal Fire has failed to send its annual report to the Legislature detailing the department's fire prevention efforts. The report, required by law, is an inventory of Cal Fire's efforts and helps lawmakers understand the state's progress on protecting vulnerable communities.
Cal Fire has increased its output during the past five years. It completed fire prevention work — directly or through grants — on 105,000 acres in the fiscal year that ended in June 2020. The department could not provide a more current total.
In 2020, Newsom tasked Cal Fire, along with partners that control state and private land, with performing 500,000 acres of forest management and fire mitigation work every year by 2025. But progress toward that goal has been slow, in part because a key state program failed to increase project completions.
In an interview, Cal Fire's Joe Tyler, who was appointed chief in March, said the department is making progress on improving forest health and protecting communities in advance of catastrophic fires by "investing in community preparedness and mitigation" and "continuing to do those fuels projects across the board."
He points to this year's creation of the Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation division, which aims to "develop, prioritize and implement strategies and projects that create fire adapted communities and landscapes."
But Tyler said the longer, more extreme wildfire seasons — coupled with the pandemic — have left the department's workforce "fatigued." That has affected Cal Fire's administrative, forest management and fire suppression capabilities.
Tyler also acknowledged the need to change Cal Fire's culture so it focuses more on prevention.
"Watching these fires get larger and more damaging since 2014, I sincerely recognize the need to change the way we do — and have changed the way that we do — business," he said.
Fire practitioners like Margo Robbins, executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, argue this change at Cal Fire is long overdue.
"I think that they have forgotten that forestry is part of their responsibility, quite frankly," said Robbins, whose expertise is in setting intentional fires that benefit the landscape and can protect communities.
She noted that Cal Fire is "moving in the right direction" by boosting investment in fire mitigation and fuel reduction. And the department has helped accommodate cultural prescribed burning led by Native American communities.
But "they have a ways to go," Robbins added.
"If they would focus more on that management piece, I think we would be seeing a very different scenario on our landscapes and a very different scenario in terms of wildfires," she said.
Rebranding the department, changing the culture
Back when Wilson ran Cal Fire in the 1990s, it was known by its official name: the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He says during those years he made sure foresters — who are trained in managing forest health — had a lot of say. He feels their voice has disappeared.
In the photo lineup of Cal Fire's past executive roster, Wilson is the last chief wearing a suit and tie. All subsequent chiefs are wearing uniforms with badges.
"Their business [now] is putting fires out," Wilson said. "The bigger the fires, the more people they need to put the fires out. That's a complete reverse of somebody trying to deal with the forest so if there is a fire, it doesn't get out of control and burn the whole thing down."
The new chief, Tyler, is a 30-year veteran of the department who previously oversaw aspects of Cal Fire's firefighting and emergency response. He said he witnessed the culture change, as well.
"I recall far ago in my career, in the '90s, where fuels treatment, fuels reduction, vegetation management was an extremely high priority of the department," Tyler said.
But then, with the onset of larger and more damaging fires, the department's focus increasingly shifted to suppression.
The name "Cal Fire" embodies this tension. In 2006, the Legislature passed a law allowing The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to rebrand.
Supporters of the bill — including the department's firefighters union — argued the change was "necessary to reflect [the department's] primary role as a fire-fighting agency." But the department itself had opposed the legislation, worried that the new moniker would obscure its forest management mandate.
These tensions are once again at the fore as California faces a new wildfire reality.
Record investment, few new fire-prevention hires
Last year, Newsom and lawmakers allocated a record $1.5 billion for wildfire prevention and forest management, with the bulk of it going to Cal Fire.
It's a record amount. As of April, about half of the $1.5 billion had been "committed" to specific projects and initiatives, according to a recent report from the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees Cal Fire. The state has up to seven years to spend the bulk of the investment; some money may have to be spent sooner.
The agency says the committed money is going to good use. "We've launched over 550 new projects with that funding," said Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for forest and wildland resilience with the Natural Resources Agency. "Which is pretty fast — for bureaucracy, from appropriation — within less than a year."
Hundreds of these projects are specific wildfire prevention and forest health efforts, according to a chart on the agency's website. For example, the Tuolumne County Resource Conservation District is planning a 641-acre fuel break to protect the communities of Groveland and Big Oak Flat.
A number of projects don't turn dirt or remove dangerous brush. Some fund studies of mitigation techniques and vegetation types. Another pays a consulting firm half-a-million dollars to develop a communications strategy for the governor's Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force.
Dozens of other projects are related to climate change resilience, but have no immediate connection to wildfires. For example, a $600,000 allocation will help the city of Glendale, in Los Angeles County, plant 500 trees within the most "tree-poor area of the City."
Part of that money would go to distributing pamphlets to urban property owners on "the benefits of trees and tree care," the project description reads.
In spite of last year's investment, the bulk of Cal Fire's overall spending remains focused on fire suppression.
In the last three fiscal years, Cal Fire allocated nearly $8 billion for "fire protection," according to figures provided by the Legislative Analyst's Office, or LAO. That money is used "to attack fires quickly and aggressively … until the fire is under control," according to the department's budget.
During those three years, the department allocated about $1.5 billion for "resource management," which according to the department's budget is for the "regulation of timber harvesting," "coordination of climate and forest restoration" and "vegetation management projects."
Staffing and new hires also heavily favor fire suppression. In the last three years, "fire protection" positions jumped from 7,076 to 8,187, according to figures provided by the state Department of Finance.
(In an interview, senior Cal Fire officials noted that some positions in the department’s “fire protection” division focus on fire prevention work. About 3% of the division’s staff are described as “fire prevention” positions, according to Department of Finance figures.)
During that same time period, Cal Fire's "resource management" division increased by 31 positions to a total of 518 — despite the massive investment in forest health and wildfire mitigation last year.
(Note: Every department's budget includes staffing figures, but the Department of Finance cautioned that some of the numbers for Cal Fire in recent years needed to be updated. The Department of Finance provided updated, accurate figures in response to a request from The California Newsroom.)
Experts acknowledge the need to ramp up fire suppression forces in the face of extreme wildfires. But they argue there needs to be a complementary increase in resource management hiring to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the first place.
Robbins, with the Cultural Fire Management Council, called the hiring disparity "startling."
"Looking at these numbers," she said, "it is very obvious to me that they're not putting as much focus as they should be on prevention as opposed to reactionary suppression."
Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives with Pacific Forest Trust, a conservation group focused on sustainable forests, said the need for more resource management staffing is "substantial."
"Cal Fire needs dozens, if not hundreds, of additional people working on the resource management side of the organization," he said.
He added that Cal Fire can't achieve forest sustainability alone, and should build up its workforce alongside other agencies focused on water resources, climate resilience and biodiversity.
One challenge, according to Morse with the Natural Resources Agency, is that last year's historic investment in wildfire resilience is mostly one-time spending, meaning the agency cannot count on it in future budgets.
"Because it's not permanent funding, it's hard to get permanent positions," she said.
Much of the money can be spent for up to seven years, Morse said. Some might have to be spent sooner. That would put a time limit on any positions created.
Advocates like Robbins and Mason are pushing for at least $1 billion in annual funding for the next five years — totaling a minimum of $5 billion — for wildfire resilience.
Struggling to track progress
An overarching initiative driving the state's fire prevention efforts is an agreement Newsom forged with the federal government in the summer of 2020.
Under the plan, California and the U.S. Forest Service each committed to completing 500,000 acres of forest management work annually in the state by 2025.
Shortly after signing the agreement, Newsom held a press conference in Butte County amid ruins of the North Complex Fire. Peering through the smoky air and clad in a vintage-style military jacket, he called the plan "a significant milestone, a significant step forward."
(In 2018, in an executive order, former Gov. Jerry Brown set an annual 500,000-acre goal for California agencies, with a deadline of 2023, but Newsom's agreement with the federal government pushed the target back two years.)
Measuring progress toward this goal is murky at best.
The California Newsroom requested data on the number of fire prevention acres Cal Fire itself completed, or funded through grants, in recent years. The department provided a chart showing a steady increase in total acreage, reaching over 105,000 acres in the fiscal year ending in June 2020.
But Cal Fire is still figuring out the total number it completed and funded through grants between July 2020 and June 2021. And the department did not provide any data on the current fiscal year.
To achieve its 500,000-acre goal, the state will count wildfire prevention work performed by Cal Fire, its grantees and private landowners, which can include large properties such as logging companies.
But currently, Cal Fire does not have a way to track work completed by many private landowners.
"It highlights something pretty basic, which is we need an accounting system that works," said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with University of California Cooperative Extension.
He notes that tabulating total fire mitigation acres is a limited method of measuring risk reduction. He and other experts advocate for a system that takes into consideration factors like proximity to vulnerable communities and topography. But quantifying total acres of completed work is a basic step toward a more sophisticated assessment system, according to Moritz.
The state is aiming to develop an online dashboard to track progress on forest management and fire prevention work. The goal is to show "the public where these projects are occurring" by putting "all this data at their fingertips," said Daniel Berlant, deputy director of the department's newly created Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation division.
The Newsom administration has come under criticism in the past for overstating the state’s wildfire prevention accomplishments, first uncovered in an investigation by The California Newsroom last year.
The state has teased the new system — an upgrade of its existing, inconsistent CalMAPPER database — since last summer. But it hasn't committed to a release date. At a meeting of the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force last month, director Patrick Wright said it would offer "an initial flavor" of the dashboard in July.
An additional challenge stands in the way of measuring progress toward the 1 million acre goal. While the target seems straightforward, Cal Fire and the federal government haven't arrived at an agreed-upon definition of what counts as an "acre."
There are differing perspectives over which types of fuel reduction should be eligible. For example, if an area has to be hand-thinned prior to a prescribed burn, should that area be tallied twice? Is salvage-logging, the process of removing damaged trees after a fire, eligible? What if the federal and state governments work together on the same project — could they both count it?
Cal Fire says it has internal definitions of how to measure and count acres of forest management work. But an agreed-upon definition with the Forest Service remains elusive.
In an interview, senior Cal Fire officials told The California Newsroom that the governor's Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force is taking the lead on crafting this definition. The task force is made up of representatives from the state and federal governments, tribal leaders and other groups that do forest health projects.
"We want to make sure that we're talking apples to apples," Berlant said. When pressed, he and other senior officials did not provide a timeline for when that definition would be finalized.
A 'messy, confusing process' to certify 'burn bosses' and expand prescribed fire
Cal Fire's prescribed fire guidebook says setting controlled, beneficial fire "is a key tool for the Department and its cooperators to use in reducing fuels at a landscape scale while improving ecosystem health in California."
But the workforce needed to meaningfully scale up prescribed fire, and protect forests and communities, is still largely lacking.
Usually "burn bosses" — those qualified to plan and lead controlled burns — need to work for many years for fire suppression agencies, such as Cal Fire or the U.S. Forest Service, to get enough experience for certification. But being so busy fighting fires for much of the year, they struggle to get many burns done.
However, burns remain a key strategy, and the state's goal has been to increase the workforce. To that end, the Legislature passed a bill in 2018 meant to increase the number of people trained to run burns. The law created a state-led training and certification program called State-Certified Prescribed-Fire Burn Boss, or CA-RX. It signaled a shift in direction — and a hope that burn bosses who do not work for government agencies in suppression, but may work for nonprofits, will have more freedom to conduct burns.
However, it took four years — until mid-April 2022 — for the first burn boss to be certified.
Emails obtained through a Public Records Act request make it clear that some Cal Fire unit chiefs, whose signoff was required to advance the certification process, did not fully support the program.
Delays in issuing and signing paperwork prevented the certification of trainees for the better part of a year. For example, course participants were not issued training checklists known as "task books," which are used to evaluate their abilities. And trainees suggest these delays may have come at a cost.
"I am deeply concerned that I have still not been issued a task book to finalize my CARX certification," wrote trainee Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, in an early January 2022 email to Cal Fire's State Fire Training division. "This sense of urgency is shared by myself and others who have seen first-hand towns nearly wiped off the map in the time we have been waiting for this CARX certification process to be finalized, and have the skills and knowledge to safely implement prescribed burns that can help save homes and protect resources."
Harling wasn't the only one to write in frustration to the division. In response to a December 2021 email from another trainee, Battalion Chief Mark Bisbee within Cal Fire's State Fire Training division acknowledged the program's problems.
"I guess the best way to characterize this entire process is messy, confusing," Bisbee wrote. "The next step is in flux because […] not all Unit Chiefs are on board."
Bisbee acknowledged in his email that the certification program "has been a very long, drawn out process," but said he would continue to advocate for the program.
In an interview in April, Bisbee said the slow start was partially due to only a few people being authorized to teach the program, but also to "bottlenecks within the bureaucracy." While he said he saw progress within the department of accepting prescribed fire — which can be a hard adjustment for those trained only to put out fire — the paradigm shift was like a huge ship moving sideways: slow.
He also acknowledged the push from lawmakers to take a new direction: "Whether Cal Fire is ready or not, the legislation is saying this is what we need to do."
In a legislative oversight hearing last December, Lenya Quinn-Davidson — a fire adviser with the University of California who helped write the legislation and the curriculum and who hosted the first course — told lawmakers:
"We've missed a ton of opportunities for project implementation. There is a huge need for qualified burn bosses to plan and implement projects and to partner with the state and to partner with landowners. But without the state certification and the protections that it can provide, many of those folks are not willing to go out and do that work."
Quinn-Davidson wrote a blog post in mid-January about the delays in the certification process. Soon after it published, Cal Fire issued task books to almost all participants, according to a blog update. Will Harling confirmed receiving his.
"We need to see this work happen more quickly," Quinn-Davidson told The California Newsroom.
Matthew Reischman, Cal Fire's deputy director of resource management, said he believes the program will prove a success.
"It's a new course for us, so there's a lot of changes and things that we had to do to get it up and running," he said. "It's a process."
Missing reports and safety inspections
In some instances, The California Newsroom discovered, Cal Fire is altogether neglecting oversight requirements.
For over a decade, the Legislature has mandated that the department file an annual report detailing its fire prevention activities for the previous year, and its plans for improving prevention efforts moving forward. The report is an inventory of the department's accomplishments, and lawmakers rely on it to understand the state's progress on protecting vulnerable communities.
But an exhaustive search by the State Library, carried out at The California Newsroom's request, found that the department has not filed this report in at least four years. The library's most recent copy covers fiscal year 2014-15. The state's website for agency reports indicates the department may have filed a report for 2017, but the library does not have a copy.
In the last two state budgets, the Legislature also required Cal Fire to file reports on grants awarded to local governments and nonprofits for fire prevention, including the number of applications received and grants awarded. The reports were due in February of this year, according to the state's website for agency reports. A search by the State Library turned up no copies.
Cal Fire did not provide copies of the reports in response to an email request. In an interview, Berlant said "the reports are in the works," adding the department took its responsibilities seriously but had been delayed by the pandemic and that "fighting fire in the middle of December, January, February — that becomes a bit of our priority."
Chief Tyler said the department is actively working on completing them.
"When I myself learned about those reports to the Legislature that are due, I put a task in my own calendar to start checking up on those to ensure that those are getting submitted timely," he said.
While some legislation lays out clear mandates for Cal Fire, other bills establish goals for the department to meet. For example, a law passed in 2019 set a goal for Cal Fire to inspect homes within its responsibility area once every three years. These inspections are designed to educate homeowners about dangers with vegetation near the home and structural vulnerabilities to wildfire.
But Cal Fire is struggling to hit its inspection targets.
According to a 2021 report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, "CalFire was not able to provide data on how many unique properties were inspected each year or how many properties had not been inspected within the past three years."
As a result, the LAO concluded, "[I]t is unclear what share of properties have received recent inspections."
The department provided some information, and indicated some local Cal Fire units inspected 10% or fewer of their parcels each year.
Berlant said the department is working to hit its goals and plans to hire more defensible space inspectors.
"We will be working to not only increase those [inspection] numbers, but to make sure that those numbers are being reported to the public to see exactly where that work is being done," he said.
Moritz, the wildfire specialist with University of California Cooperative Extension, said the inspections are essential.
"Clearly if Cal Fire was able to follow through and inspect 100% of the parcels that need it," said Moritz, "presumably those inspections would lead to a great benefit, a great reduction in risk for both the firefighters and for the homeowners."
Cal Fire also is supposed to update fire hazard severity maps every five years, but they were last updated in 2007. The agency told CapRadio in December that the new ones would be released in the next few months — at that time, ostensibly February or March.
In a recent interview, Cal Fire staff now says the new maps likely will roll out in the summer and fall.
The maps are "a really important tool that we have for smarter building and design of our communities, because the building codes are attached to those maps," according to Moritz.
Delaying the map updates, Moritz said, could lead to places still being identified at a lower hazard level than they should be. "You could have building going on that would not be at the building codes that are necessary for the hazard in that location," he said.
The department's modeling has struggled to keep pace with the conditions feeding California's extreme wildfires. Berlant says the department is now using science that "tracks extreme wind events at a much smaller scale, so that we can better mirror conditions that we've been experiencing in these last couple of fire seasons."
Cal Fire's chief responds
The California Newsroom presented Chief Tyler with its findings, and he expounded on ways he plans to change the culture and structure of Cal Fire. He also reiterated his belief that Cal Fire can — and under his leadership will — balance its firefighting and forestry responsibilities.
For example, experts and practitioners in the world of fire resilience have told The California Newsroom they feel an inability to publicly criticize or offer scrutiny of Cal Fire for fear of damaging their relationship with the department, being cut out of grants or not getting their permits signed.
Tyler acknowledged this fear is a real problem.
"That disappoints me," he said. "I have heard that in the past."
In his short time as chief, Tyler said he has been working to create an environment that welcomes open communication and collaboration. He said in his first weeks as the head of Cal Fire, he spent about six days a week soliciting input from stakeholders.
Morse, with the state’s Natural Resources Agency, added that Cal Fire's participation in the governor's Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force brought the department to the table with representatives from nongovernment organizations, tribes and local governments.
While he's open to some changes, Tyler stopped short of advocating for radical overhauls to the department's structure.
Cal Fire uses a top-down organizational structure called the "incident command system." This organizational model is often used by public agencies to manage emergencies.
Tyler believes this structure is effective for fighting fires — and planning to prevent them.
"Cal Fire is a very paramilitary organization," the chief said. "You can use that system for applying anything to this organization, whether that be fuels reduction, vegetation management, prescribed fire or full suppression."
Tyler also pushed back on handing over fire prevention responsibilities, such as prescribed burns and other mitigation efforts, to a cabinet-level position appointed by the governor — a proposal floated by one lawmaker.
"I do not believe that there is a need to split this department," Tyler said.
He emphasized his expectation that, when firefighters "are not actively suppressing fires and going to emergencies, they are doing defensible space inspections, they are doing fuels reduction [and] they are investing in prescribed fire."
"It is important that these employees are doing the entire mission of the department," he said.
The California Newsroom is a collaboration of public radio stations, NPR and CalMatters.