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California wildfires: State, Federal governments should work together

California wildfires: State, Federal governments should work together
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California is reeling from extensive damage caused by devastating wildfires that have burned millions of acres and destroyed thousands of structures. Now the bill is coming due, even as firefighters continue working to extinguish the blazes policymakers are faced with billion dollar questions.

Exactly how much will it cost for the state to recover from the significant damage to property, infrastructure and natural landscapes? And what can be done proactively to reduce the risks and costs to California in the future?

For weeks, Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, Calif., have blamed each other while debating the causes and solutions to wildfires and climate change. This debate briefly intensified when the Trump administration initially rejected — and then approved — California’s request for federal disaster relief funds to support recovery efforts.  

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Meanwhile, California’s citizens are struggling to rebuild their homes and businesses, especially as fire insurance premiums increase by as much as 200 percent. Many homeowners understood the risks and took steps to reduce excess vegetation around their own properties. They must be frustrated that the government hasn’t done its part, as three decades of non-management have contributed to conditions where California forests are 80 to 600 percent denser than 150 years ago.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE has been justifiably vocal about the need for improved forest management. Yet others have countered with the fact that federal agencies own and manage 57 percent of the 33 million acres of the state’s forested land. It has been estimated that 2.4 million acres of California’s national forests burned up this year, much of it at high severity.

There is truth to the argument that it is the federal government’s responsibility to mitigate wildfire risks. Both the president and the U.S. Congress must provide federal land managers with the policy tools and resources to meet that responsibility. For his part, Trump signed an unprecedented executive order in late 2018 prioritizing active forest management in response to wildfires.

But dealing with the devastation of wildfires does, in fact, require close coordination between California and the federal government. Both must address the extensive damage to public lands, and the millions of dead and dying trees that must be removed, specifically those that pose public safety hazards along thousands of miles of roads. Restoration costs for the 2.4 million acres of forest land burned on California's national forests could reach over $1.5 billion.  

Despite the political rhetoric, there are also hopeful signs that California and the federal government are seeking solutions to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future. In August, the U.S. Forest Service and the State of California agreed on a plan to thin millions of acres of the state’s forests over the next 20 years. For this plan to be successful, Republicans and Democrats must take steps to ensure these projects can be implemented in a timely manner and are not held up by endless environmental analysis, red tape and anti-forestry litigation and obstruction.

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Judging by the haggling over the costs of post-fire recovery, it is clear that neither Washington, D.C., or Sacramento will be willing and able to pay the full costs for proactive forest management alone. An effective strategy for restoration and preventative thinning will require the help of the private sector utilizing the value from wood products like lumber.  

The state’s forest products industry is capable of removing dead trees and excess vegetation, and turning the material into carbon-friendly wood products and renewable biomass energy. Both California and the federal government should seize the opportunity to recover the lost economic value of burnt timber to support rural economies that had already been hard hit by COVID-19.

For the sake of California’s wildfire victims, we should all expect the state and federal governments to work together to ensure they have the resources and support they need to recover. We should also expect similar cooperation in proactively managing forests and reducing fuels to help prevent costly devastation in 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. Follow the organization on Twitter @HealthyForests1.