California: Dual threats of wildfire and COVID-19 underscore need for prevention

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With over tens of thousands of acres already burning in California, and with more fires likely on the way, prevention is the key to facing down the dual threats of catastrophic wildfire and COVID-19. Ensuring safe conditions for firefighters, in part by suppressing fires as quickly as possible, are essential to preventing outbreaks and avoiding tragic losses. It is also important that our land management agencies have the tools and resources to prevent unnaturally severe fires before they can ignite and cause devastation in our communities. 

California’s elected officials understand the need for such proactive measures. Last year Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a wildfire emergency, suspending environmental and regulatory review requirements for some fire-risk reduction projects and announcing millions of dollars in new funding for fire prevention programs. These efforts are starting to show results, as a fuel break from a mechanical thinning project allowed firefighters to gain a foothold on the Hog Fire in northeastern California. 

Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are also ramping up projects to install fuel breaks and thin unnaturally overstocked federal lands, though these efforts continue to be targets of litigation by activist groups. Because California wildfires often burn through public lands, the U.S. Congress must take action to increase the pace and scale of activities that help reduce the intensity of wildfires. According to researchers, in order for significant improvements in forest resilience to be made, fuel reduction on Forest Service lands in the Sierra Nevada headwater region would need to be boosted two- to six-fold.  

Fortunately, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) is working with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on bipartisan legislation to accelerate treatments on overgrown forests where targeted thinning and timber removal can help reduce heavy fuel loads on national forests. Their legislation would help expedite forest projects that can provide significant protection to communities, including treatments around roads, trails and transmission lines. The proposal could also help promote the utilization of low-value wood material as biomass, which can generate renewable energy. 

Passage of the Feinstein-Daines legislation may help support efforts such as the newly-announced Social and Ecological Resilience Across the Landscape (SERAL) project on California’s Stanislaus National Forest. The 117,000-acre project was developed in cooperation with a local collaborative group to implement vegetation treatments, including targeted commercial logging, in ways that benefit the environment and the economy. Landscape-scale projects such as SERAL combined with robust public-private partnerships will be vital to reducing wildfire risks while improving forest health and restoring jobs in hard-hit communities.

Until recently, federal agencies had struggled to keep pace with the rising costs of wildfire suppression, which forced the Forest Service to “borrow” funds from non-fire accounts to cover funding shortfalls. In 2018, Congress approved a wildfire funding fix that allows agencies to access increased levels of suppression funding up to a fixed cap.  

Recently the U.S. House approved its Interior Appropriations bill containing $5.73 billion for wildland fire management, which includes $2.35 billion in fire suppression funding under the fire funding fix, and is $174 million over the previous spending level. To support fire prevention, the U.S. House also proposes a $65 million funding increase for Forest Service hazardous fuels reduction, along with modest increases for forest products and forest road programs that complement firefighting and fire prevention efforts. Though prospects for a final funding bill are unclear, Congress should provide additional funding increases in each of these programs to boost fire prevention.

We should all be thankful for our firefighters who are operating in dangerous environments during a pandemic. If it wasn’t difficult enough, new research suggests exposure to wildfire smoke could worsen coronavirus symptoms and even increase the mortality rate. 

While COVID-19 seemingly dictates the terms for wildfire suppression, our elected officials in California and throughout the country should urgently support prevention and proactive, science-based efforts to mitigate fire risks now and into the future.

Nick Smith is director of Public Affairs for the American Forest Resource Council, a regional trade association representing the forest products sector. He is also executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of America’s federally-owned forests.

Tags Bureau of Land Management California wildfires Congress Diane Feinstein Firefighters forest fires Gavin Newsom Land management National Forests Steve Daines US Forest Lands Wildfire suppression wildfires

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