Is CAL FIRE Burning Out of Control?: News Releases: The Independent Institute

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News Release
March 30, 2017

Is CAL FIRE Burning Out of Control?
State Agency Wins Award for Missteps, Waste, and Scandals

OAKLAND, CA—The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—CAL FIRE—has just been named “winner” of the Spring 2017 California Golden Fleece® Award , recognition given quarterly to state or local agencies and projects that violate the public trust and swindle taxpayers.

CAL FIRE, which is tasked with fighting fires in approximately one-third of the state, has lost the confidence of Californians due to its missteps and scandals, according to economist Lawrence J. McQuillan, a Senior Fellow at the Oakland-based Independent Institute, which gives out the award.

“CAL FIRE’s poor handling of fire safety and costs, severe lack of accountability to taxpayers and landowners, and numerous scandals make it a hindrance to the state,” writes McQuillan.

In 2016, there were 5,762 wildfires in areas of California where CAL FIRE has primary responsibility, about 600 more fires than in 2015, and about one thousand more than the five-year annual average. In 2015, the third most damaging wildfire in the state’s recorded history, the Valley Fire, burned more than 75,000 acres in Lake, Napa, and Sonoma Counties, destroyed nearly 2,000 structures, and took four lives.

The California Golden Fleece® Award calls out CAL FIRE for setting misguided priorities, including putting fire prevention efforts on its back burner.

CAL FIRE’s proposed budget allocates less money to the fire-prevention fund and making only 21 percent of the fund available as grants to local fire-prevention efforts, even though experts believe greater emphasis on fire prevention would reduce the frequency and severity of catastrophic wildfires.

It is also under fire for receiving revenues from a controversial “fee”—in reality a tax—that never cleared the legislative supermajority threshold that the state’s constitution requires for a new tax. The tax hinders local efforts to fund fire prevention.

CAL FIRE has also been plagued by numerous scandals, including a multi-year test cheating scandal at the CAL FIRE Academy and the use of state property for non-job related uses (including connecting with prostitutes).

Because CAL FIRE’s problems go beyond mere personnel issues, McQuillan recommends making several fundamental changes to state fire policymaking. They include:

  • Changing the main priority of fire managers, from one of strongly emphasizing active suppression to one of fire prevention through fuel reduction.
  • Adopting smart alternatives to traditional firefighting practices, such as low-intensity controlled burning that prevents the massive accumulation of excess natural fuels.
  • Shifting responsibility for wildfire management to local fire districts and private property owners, who have stronger incentives to prevent fires and manage fire risks efficiently.

“By unshackling Californians from the burden of paying for and relying on the unreasonably costly, misincentivized, and scandal-ridden CAL FIRE, fire safety can be efficiently and effectively achieved,” McQuillan writes.

Winners of the California Golden Fleece® Award are announced quarterly. Nominations can be submitted at The Independent Institute is a non-profit, research and educational organization that promotes the power of independent thinking to boldly advance peaceful, prosperous, and free societies grounded in a commitment to human worth and dignity. For more information, visit

Media inquiries: Rob Ade at ([email protected]) or 510-632-1366, ext. 114.

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