California races to get ahead of another bad fire season
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday signed a $536 billion funding plan to speed fire prevention projects across the state, part of an effort to mitigate the potential effects of another devastating season that could come just weeks before a recall election.
Newsom’s budget includes $1 billion in new funds to promote forest health and community resilience. And he has authorized hiring almost 1,400 new firefighters for the state’s top fire management agency, a new commitment necessary to what lawmakers and experts say is the state’s new reality.
“Fire season is all year round,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D), whose San Diego-area district was ravaged by fires in 2003 and 2007. “We have to make up for lost time and certainly how drastic things seem to be moving in the direction that’s making it harder for California.”
California officials are making preparations to avert the kind of incendiary destruction that has plagued it in recent years, from the verdant forests in the north to the arid deserts around San Diego; the seven largest fires in California’s recorded history have all taken place since 2017.
A massive lightning storm and high winds sparked thousands of wildfires in the Sierra Nevada mountains last year, draping a blanket of smoke over California’s capital city so thick that some residents could not see neighboring houses just down the street.
The unprecedented conflagration overwhelmed state firefighters. Five separate fires in August and September burned a combined 2.6 million acres, destroyed thousands of buildings and claimed almost two dozen lives.
The 2020 fire season was a reminder of just how many different ways there are for California to burn. In recent years, dry weather has sparked blazes in parched mountain forests. Wet weather led to the growth of highly flammable grasslands, which later ignited in the hills around Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco suburbs.
Now, after another parched winter in which snowpack fell well below average, California wildfire experts are preparing for another complex season of incineration.
“Everyone’s bracing for another severe fire season because we’re in this ongoing drought. It’s been really dry here in California,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser at the University of California and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.
Experts say winning the fight against wildfires is going to take a wholesale change in attitude from a century of learned practices. U.S. policy toward forest management has for decades focused on fire suppression, which leads to a build-up of fuels on the forest floor — and, eventually, to larger fires that spin out of control.
“We have 100 years of legacy in this state and we have a lot of federal land over which the state does not have a lot of power. So it has to be a coupled effort between the feds and the state to address the accumulated brush and understory growth,” said Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.
Pincetl contrasted the American approach with a more hands-off attitude on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where regular fires go unchecked. There are more frequent conflagrations in Mexico, but those fires are less destructive.
“When there are naturally ignited fires, it burns at low intensities in 10 to 15 to 20 year cycles, so they’re not devastated,” Pincetl said. “Fire is an implicit part of the ecosystem, and if you suppress it, you fail to get regeneration.”
Fire experts say a shift in the way the federal government handles wildfires is just as essential to mitigating the worst outcomes. The federal government aids in hardening communities and homes from other disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, treatment it does not give to wildfires that are just as inevitable.
“We’ve gone from a perspective societally from thinking about fire prevention to a phase of fire adaptation. How can we view fires the way we view hurricanes and earthquakes, knowing that they’re always going to happen,” Quinn-Davidson said. “Fire’s not going away.”
For California, this year’s early investments in forest management are expected to pay dividends down the line. Budget estimates show every dollar spent on mitigation or fuel cleanup or community resiliency saves $6 to $7 in firefighting and recovery costs, Atkins said.
“We just know that for every dollar we spend on prevention we’re going to save money,” Atkins said.
This year, the lack of snowfall over the winter has some experts worried about another dry season ahead. But they said the situation could change if spring rains soak the state and spur new growth of underbrush and grasslands, which could become their own threat.
“The actual timing of the rain and the warmth of the soil when it’s getting that surge of water can really dictate how things grow,” Quinn-Davidson said. “Because we’ve had so little rain, things are kind of stunted in their growth right now. We’ll see what happens in May.”
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