A slate of California officials talked about the importance of prevention measures in the forests and communities of the Golden State to help reduce the devastation wrought by large-scale wildfires, but also acknowledged those measures are too late to make a difference for the impending fire season.
(CN) — A leading California state official in firefighting and forestry said the federal government is a more reliable partner since Joe Biden has assumed the presidency.
Jessica Morse, the deputy secretary for forest and wildfire resilience for the California Natural Resources Agency, said both the state and the federal government know how to better manage forests to reduce large devastating wildfires, but it’s more a matter of funding and political will.
“There is not a large question mark about what we need to do, it’s more about scaling the investment,” Morse said during a panel discussion hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California on Wednesday. “And so we are so excited to have a national level partner with President Biden to start investing in and executing that.”
Morse said California has developed shared stewardship strategy with the U.S. Forest Service that focuses more efforts on prevention with strategies like pile burning, forest thinning, mastication of small trees and creating hazardous fuel breaks near communities as a last line of defense.
Increasingly state officials are saying more investment in prevention is necessary rather than merely focusing on suppression efforts that have proved futile in the face of staving off destructive megafires from susceptible communities located throughout the state.
“The studies show that for every $1 spent on investing in various prevention strategies it saves about $7 in disaster-related costs,” said California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara on Wednesday.
State Senator Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa, who also participated in Wednesday’s panel discussion said the state has invested $3.3 billion in prevention measures specifically over the past 5 years. Before that 5-year period, the state budget allocated $330,000 to prevention methods.
“It is shifting,” he said.
In Governor Gavin Newsom’s latest budget, he called for allocating $2 billion to wildfire mitigation measures, including the purchase of aircraft to beef up CalFire’s response efforts. But he also calls for investment in more pile burning, thinning, fuel breaks for communities and for home hardening.
Part of the large number is a reflection of California being surprisingly flush with cash as it emerges from the pandemic, brought on by a stock market boom, but part of it does reflect the shifting priorities of officials who want more money toward fire prevention rather than response efforts.
Environmentalists have called for more money to be allocated toward hardening homes for wildfires, arguing too much forest management can harm wildlife and ecosystems.
“Remarkably, Gov. Newsom is giving just over 3% of the overall wildfire budget to equitable home hardening, which is the most effective way to protect existing communities with high fire risk,” said Brian Nowicki of The Center for Biological Diversity. “The governor needs to forego business-as-usual logging that only worsens the climate crisis, harms wildlife and fails to protect people and their homes.”
Home hardening refers to various measures to make individual houses more resistant to fire-driven embers, like using different materials for roofs, keeping gutters and eaves clean from vegetation and debris, dual-paned windows and covered chimneys among other mitigations.
“Homes built after 2008, when home hardening provisions were mandated by state law, saw a 60% survival rate in Paradise,” Morse said. “Homes built before 2008 saw a 10% survival rate.”
But while most of the panelists agreed such measures were critical, they also acknowledged that a dry winter has made the possibility of a high-intensity fire season that gets off to an early start a higher probability.
“The reality is that we are way behind on prevention and mitigation so we have to deal with what we have to deal with now,” said Kelly Seyarto, a Republican Assemblyperson from Murrieta, who worked as a career firefighter previous to his life in politics. “To catch up with mitigation will take some time. In the meantime, we have to have enough people and enough resources to deal with the fires that are coming.”
And fires are coming. In fact, they are already here.
100s of homeowners were evacuated this week after a wildland fire in the Palisades region burned out of control, destroying two buildings.
While not exactly on the level of some of the other more destructive fires experienced by the state in recent years, evacuations occurring in mid-May points to a dry landscape that will only continue to get drier as the summer lengthens into August and September.
“I know we are gaining containment and the evacuations have been listed,” Lara said Wednesday morning. “But the Governor recently declared 41 of the 58 California counties are now in a drought emergency.”
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said.