Shared from the 6/21/2021 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Doubts over Newsom’s effort to curb wildfires

Strategy of creating forest fuel breaks has limited success

Photos by Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

A fuel break was added to Quarry Park in El Granada in San Mateo County in an effort to slow or stop fires.


Trees have been cut along the park’s fuel break and vegetation has been thinned out in an attempt to stop wildfires from reaching homes.


Before last year’s devastating fire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom directed firefighters to clear huge lines of trees and shrubs near more than 200 communities to help stop or slow a potential blaze. Much of the work was done in the Bay Area.

These widely promoted fuel breaks, a centerpiece of the governor’s billion-dollar strategy to protect California from catastrophic wildfire, however, have had limited success, according to data reviewed by The Chronicle.

While state officials credit some of the breaks with helping contain fires, relatively few of the projects have been in locations that burned. When they did intercept a fire, the flames often pushed right through, governed by winds and ember storms made famous in the destructive infernos in Paradise and Wine Country. Going forward, the breaks are likely to have similar shortcomings.

The mixed results speak to how hard it is to get a handle on the state’s worsening wildfire problem. It’s a struggle that could haunt California again this year as another potentially bad fire season looms. The results also raise questions about whether the state should be investing in other tactics that would do more to limit losses.

In Newsom’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, as much as $400 million is slated for hundreds of additional fuel breaks. The 35 breaks built before last year’s fire season cost $30 million and were considered so much of a priority that they were exempt from environmental review. Critics have said the spending and emphasis should go to programs with a better record of safeguarding communities like retrofitting homes with fire-repellent materials.

“Fuel breaks generally don’t work when it matters most,” said Bryant Baker, conservation director for the environmental group Los Padres ForestWatch, who has been examining how the state’s projects affect fire behavior. “The fires just completely overrun the fuel breaks, especially under extreme, windy conditions. And these extreme fires are the ones we need to be concerned about, the ones that are doing most of the damage.”

Fuel breaks are all slightly different, but they’re generally strips of forest or scrubland where vegetation has been cut back to reduce fuel for a fire. The idea is that when a blaze hits the break, it eases up, giving firefighters time to move in and take a stand.

The breaks can take months, if not years, to build, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Some breaks may be just a few dozen feet wide while others can be hundreds of feet wide and stretch for miles, comprising tens of thousands of acres. Fire agencies as well rural communities and neighborhood groups have been building such defensive lines for decades.

Of the 35 high-profile fuel breaks that Newsom rolled out in 2019, portions of five encountered a fire last year, hitting about 2% of the total 90,000 acres cleared by fire crews, according to data from Los Padres ForestWatch and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Parts of three of these breaks served as stopping points for fires. The three breaks, however, played only a small role in stopping their respective blazes. Each constituted less than 1% of the fire’s perimeter, the data show.

“I would not look at this as success,” Baker said. “I would look at this as an example of our misplaced priorities.”

Cal Fire officials disagree. They say even if most projects didn’t encounter a fire or stop one, the few that did may have protected people and property, making the investment worthwhile.

“Communities that didn’t get saved might be wondering: ‘What if we would have had a fuel break?’ ” said Christine McMorrow, spokeswoman for Cal Fire.

State-built fuel breaks near Shaver Lake in the Sierra Nevada were among those hit by last year’s giant Creek Fire. As that blaze grew into California’s fourth largest wildfire, the Shaver Springs fuel break, a 400­foot-wide, 78-acre “shaded” fuel break — trees were left standing but underbrush was cleared — kept flames from reaching rural homes near Highway 168 in Fresno County before it burned partly through, according to McMorrow.

“This made it easier for a dozer to go in there and open it up to a full-on fire break,” she said. “They were able to do what they needed to do in a few hours verses a few days. It was a really big deal.”

The 379,900-acre fire hit two other state fuel breaks, the 384­acre Musick break and the 82-acre Blue Rush break. The blaze burned across the Musick break while it burned into a small part of the Blue Rush break, where firefighters used the break to establish a containment line.

“Fuel breaks are very effective at halting and/or slowing fire spread,” said Jonathan Groveman, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, which was the lead agency battling the Creek Fire. “The established fuel breaks and prescribed fire units absolutely helped.”

Elsewhere in California, the state’s 953-acre Elk Creek fuel break intercepted last year’s August Complex, which burned more than 1 million acres of coastal mountains between Lake and Shasta counties. It was the largest fire in state history. Eight miles of the break were used to contain a small portion of the blaze’s eastern front, Cal Fire officials said.

Also, the state’s 1,596-acre Forbestown Ridge fuel break and fuel reduction project encountered part of the 318,900­acre North Complex fire in Plumas and Butte counties in the northern Sierra. The fire burned across part of the break and at another point helped crews harness about a mile of the fire’s perimeter, according to Cal Fire.

State officials emphasize that fuel breaks are just one piece of their “all-of-the-above” approach to making California more fire resilient. Newsom’s proposed budget calls for $1.2 billion of new spending on resiliency that also includes money for prescribed burning, forest research and monitoring and making homes safer by providing grants for retrofits like stronger roofs and ensuring defensible space.

Still, with such small portions of the state’s fuel breaks having much benefit, many say these other tactics are a far better place to put the money.

“ ‘All of the above’ sounds commonsensical, but in practice it is an abrogation of leadership,” wrote Doug Bevington, forest program director for the nonprofit foundation Environment Now, in a new report that encourages more funding for home safety.

Compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars proposed for fuel breaks, Newsom’s budget calls for $40 million for hardening homes to fire. The governor’s office has said additional money for hardening could come from earthquake and other disaster funding in the budget, though it’s unclear how much.

Some of Newsom’s proposed fire-resiliency money is already being spent, in advance of the fiscal year that starts July 1, because of a deal negotiated with lawmakers. The rest remains in the governor’s $268 billion budget proposal that is expected to be finalized by the end of the month.

Alexandra Syphard, one of few researchers who has published peer-reviewed studies on the real-world impacts of fuel breaks in California, said such projects can have their place if done properly. To slow a fire, they should be confined to areas that are most likely to burn, given their low odds of intercepting a blaze. They also need to be easily accessible to firefighters since the breaks don’t typically stop fires on their own.

Syphard, an adjunct professor at San Diego State University, noted that such vegetation work is best suited to reducing fire severity in a forest with the benefit being for the natural landscape. When fires can be limited to low-intensity burning, they can help restore a healthy balance of flora and nourish the soil. If the objective is to safeguard homes and people, she said, fuel breaks aren’t “the best bang for your buck.”

“I wouldn’t want to create a false sense of security saying these are going to protect you,” Syphard said. “When you have really high wind conditions, hot and dry, that are coming off of the mountains, fires are very difficult to control. There’s a very good chance that the fire is going to continue” through the break.

Among the governor’s 35 priority fuel breaks in 2019 were a 26,270-acre project in Contra Costa County designed to help protect Orinda, a 250-acre project in San Mateo County to protect El Granada and Half Moon Bay, a 70-acre project in San Mateo County to protect Woodside and a 454-acre project in Santa Clara County to protect communities along Highway 17.

None of the Bay Area work came into play during the 2020 fire season, which saw a record 4.1 million acres singed across the state. The burning continued a nearly decade-long run of large, hard-to-control blazes, the result of decades of fire suppression that’s left landscapes wildly overgrown and a steadily warming climate.

Last year’s burns included the sprawling SCU Lightning Complex fires in the South and East bays, CZU Lightning Complex fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains and LNU Lightning Complex fires in the North Bay.

Fire experts warn of an above-normal fire potential for California this summer and fall after a second dry winter and a deepening drought.

The governor’s 35 priority fuel breaks are being maintained as needed to keep worrisome vegetation from growing back, Cal Fire officials said, while scores of new ones are beginning to take shape.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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