California may have reached its breaking point when it comes to the amount of money it has had to spend in fighting wildfires.
Especially when it comes to the lack of funding to prevent those wildfires — leading to that much costlier scenario of fighting the wildfires in the long run.
The state realized its worst wildfire year ever in 2020 with estimates that as much as $3 billion was spent to fight wildfires in the state. It's also estimated the negative economic impact on the state when it comes to the wildfires will be as much as $10 billion.
So it's expected when the State Legislature begins the new year on January 11 it and Governor Gavin Newsom will finally take serious action when it comes to wildfire prevention and mitigation. A coalition representing numerous organizations recently took action to make sure that happens.
The coalition that represents forestry, agriculture, business and environmental groups recently sent the legislature and Newsom a letter calling for the state to invest $1.5 billion in wildfire prevention and mitigation.
The letter calls on such measures as controlled, prescribed burning and forest thinning which would help prevent wildfires and also reduce their size and the speed in which they spread. One example of the benefits of prescribed burning came when officials credited the Balch Park and Mountain Home State Forest area being saved significantly to prescribed burns that had been done there.
“I’m old enough to remember when controlled burns were an active tool we could use under the right conditions to reduce fuel loads,” noted cattleman David Daley, Chairman, California Cattle Council & CSU Chico Professor Emeritus. “We stopped doing prescribed fire to any significant degree beginning probably 30 years ago, and a big part of that is regulatory obstacles. It’s not just ranchers and other rural residents that suffer the consequences, though: it is the wildlife and the environment, whole communities, and the entire state. We need experts on the ground empowered to say ‘we can burn.’ We’ve simply got to reduce these fuel loads.”
The coalition calls for $600 million to be invested to create more natural, fire-resilient conditions which would include prescribed burning and forest thinning. This would include funding to CAL FIRE's Forest Health grant program, Forest Legacy Program, Fire and Resource Assessment Program, and California Forest Improvement Program. Also include would efforts to prevent fires in agricultural areas and funding for a collaborative tribal burning program “that respects tribal sovereignity,” the coalition states.
The coalition also proposes $900 million to reduce the risk of wildfire to homes, commercial structures, and communities. This would include investments in CAL FIRE’s Fire Prevention grant program. California and Local Conservation Corps, California Community Colleges, and Department of Conservation for the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program, as well as funding to improve defensible space and alert systems. “These measures are especially important for non-forested, high risk areas, where prescribed fire and other landscape intervention may not be viable options,” the coalition states.
The coalition also calls for better coordination between the state's many fire prevention programs.
As far as how funding would be provided the coalition called for a statewide bond to be proposed.
The state was set to begin to spend on wildfire prevention in 2020 — before the COVID-19 pandemic happened. A $100 million pilot project to outfit older homes with fire-resistant materials was dropped in 2020. Another $165 million earmarked for community protection and wildland fuel-reduction was reduced to $10 million.
The state legislature was also on the verge of providing $500 million for wildfire response and prevention. But disagreements on how that would be funded torpedoed the proposal.
Senate Democrats wanted the fee to be assessed on electricity bills but utility companies, businesses an farmers strongly opposed that idea. There was the idea the money would come from the state's cap and trade program, but money hasn't really materialized from that program so far.
It was expected the cap and trade program would generate $200 million a year, but in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic prevented industry activity that would have generated those funds.
Among those that make of the Coalition are the Defenders of Wildlife, the Wine Institute and the California Cattlemen's Association.
The coalition's letter also states how the strategy of fire suppression — or the lack of prescribed burning — has contributed to the large increase in wildfires. The coalition also states in the letter climate change is “exacerbating” the situation.
In its letter the coalition called for a “sizeable” investment in prescribed burning.
“Extensive fire suppression and exclusion, development in high fire hazard severity zones, and the spread of non-native vegetation from human activities has left California’s landscapes prone to large, intense fires,” the coalition stated in its letter. “Given the degraded condition of many of our fire-prone landscapes, the scale of the problem currently facing our state, and that climate change is exacerbating this problem, we need to significantly increase, accelerate, and sustain efforts to prepare for and reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire, in addition to ongoing fire suppression activities.
“If designed and implemented well, these investments can also provide benefits to wildlife, water quality and security, and climate mitigation and resilience.”