Thursday, December 2, 2021

Skelton: California politicians must do more with wildfires

Wildfires have always threatened California, and they will never stop, especially with the climate warming. What we can do is make them more manageable and less disastrous.

This is what Gov. Gavin Newsom and the legislature are trying to achieve – with some delay – by investing unprecedented amounts of money to prevent fires.

Sacramento should have done this a long time ago. Blame internal squabbles, budget worries and inability to prioritize the threat of wildfires.

Don’t expect dramatic progress towards the next fire season, although the improvements should be gradual. Given how far California lags behind in tackling bushfires, and the natural slowness of government — a painful trait of almost any government — this will take years of sustained effort and huge tax revenues.

In Sacramento, there is a sense of the inevitability of major wildfires. Fireflies such as the Alisala fire in Santa Barbara County have raged forever along the Southern California coastline. The hills above Malibu are periodically set on fire.

But there is also optimism that fires can be made less dire than the fires that have destroyed tens of thousands of homes and entire cities in recent years.

“The good news is that we really know how to make California’s ecology climate resilient. We don’t just sit back and say good luck, ”says Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for the sustainability of forests and wildlife at the State Natural Resources Agency.

Morse is a fifth-generation Californian whose family helped settle in the tiny, historic, pine-forested mountain town of Gold Run in the Sierra east of Sacramento. She grew up there. For her, forest fires are “a personal, emotional and serious affair,” she said.

Personally, I’m sick of hearing politicians – starting with Newsom – immediately blame climate change for our wildfires. It sounds like this: “I am not to blame. This did not happen on my shift. ”

Well, now it’s their turn. What are they doing about it? Of course, climate change is exacerbating forest fires by drying out vegetation and making fires hotter and more volatile.

But, as Morse told me, “the climate crisis will not go away overnight.”

We need to tackle the bushfire threat that exists today, not just use it as a topic of conversation to spur public support for slowing climate change. It seems that this is what Newsom is doing.

Nonetheless, 2021 has been a landmark year for legislative and governor action to prevent and combat forest fires.

“We’ve finally put our money where we speak,” says State Senator Bill Dodd (Democratic Republic of Napa), whose wine-growing area north of San Francisco has been hit hard by wildfires. He is a leader in fire legislation.

“Last year we spent $ 3 billion on fire fighting and $ 100 million on fire prevention. It just doesn’t work, ”says Dodd. “This year we’re going to spend $ 3 billion on suppression and $ 1.5 billion on prevention.”

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The money for prevention will go to the projects buffet.

One critical project is thinning dense forests by removing flammable dead trees and dense undergrowth.

Much of this thinning is done through so-called prescribed burning, which is what the native Californians did to keep forests healthy until Europeans drove them back and put out every little flame to protect settlements and marketable timber.

“For millennia, the ecology of California has been perfectly controlled,” says Morse. “Then the West was colonized. … As a result of multi-generational decisions and climate change, we are now seeing catastrophic mega-fires. ”

California forests are overgrown with people, pines and undergrowth. The dense trees became susceptible to disease – bark beetles during the drought – and nearly 170 million are now dead, creating hot burning fuel for the fire.

The state and federal governments have been slow to respond to the current realities of forests needing to be cleaned periodically.

“Last year we had a goal to cultivate 500,000 acres, but we only did about 60,000,” says Dodd.

Newsom signed into law the Dodd Act, which would protect landowners from liability if the prescribed burns on their forest property got out of hand.

Record government spending will also be used to create cleared spaces – so-called “fuel breaks” – around forest settlements where firefighters can safely place their equipment and firefires. Fuel breaks helped save South Lake Tahoe in August.

The money will also provide homeowners with subsidies to create plant light buffer zones – “protective spaces” – near their vulnerable homes.

There will be grants for “house strengthening” such as installing double-glazed windows and finally getting rid of those wooden tile roofs.

“It’s a cultural issue,” says Tom Porter, head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We see fires that we have never seen in history, like burning sequoias, because they are so dry. We must accept this fact and prepare our communities for resilience.

“It will definitely cost a lot of money and will require constant activity.”

Another Dodd bill signed by Newsom calls for the creation of a new Wildfire Technology Research office to test better equipment and retarders.

“We’re falling behind on this,” says Dodd.

As of Friday, California has burned about 2.5 million acres this year in more than 8,000 wildfires that will kill 3,600 buildings. Last year, 4.3 million acres of land were burned and nearly 10,500 buildings destroyed.

Reducing the threat of wildfires should be a top priority for the state government. It’s about public safety, ruined lives, disrupted local economies, toxic smoky skies and greenhouse gas emissions that are further exacerbating a warming climate.

The last few years cannot become the status quo. It is unacceptable. The public must keep politicians on their feet.

Nation World News Desk
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