With California’s worst wildfire season on record still raging, experts from across the state are calling for a $2 billion investment in the next year on prevention tactics like prescribed burns and more year-round forest management jobs.
Organizations like the Sierra Business Council say this money will directly impact mountain regions of the state impacted by wildfire year after year, said Brittany Benesi, the nonprofit’s government and community affairs director.
“We have a need and we have an opportunity to increase community safety, decrease the rate of climate change, enhance environmental resilience and create good jobs and communities that need them,” Benesi said.
Wildfires in the state this year have burned more than 4 million acres, killed 31 people and destroyed more than 9,000 homes and businesses. California has invested millions of dollars over the past few years on forest health, including removing trees along highways and campgrounds that were killed by bark beetles.
But experts say more needs to be done, especially with the pace and scale of wildfires growing due to historic fire suppression, climate change and the large population living in wildfire-prone areas.
“This can only be done with meaningful investment, and we simply can't wait any longer,” Benesi said.
The coalition wants a few major things to happen, all of which involve investing money into fire prevention.
With 57% of forested land in the state owned by the federal government, the coalition wants Congress to ramp up funding for forest management, while reducing wildfire risk.
There is a federal bill in the works that could increase the amount of prescribed burns, as well as an agreement between the federal government and California to treat one million acres of land over the next five years. It would also create a 20-year plan for thinning and burning forests.
“We’re seeing significant impacts economically… I think the greater need is to really think about the economic impacts if we don't do anything, if we don't move in a direction of using more prescribed fire,” said Kelly Martin, retired chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park.
While around $2.2 billion was allotted this fiscal year to CalFire for fire suppression, only about $203,000 was designated to prevention. And the state’s dedicated fire money for suppression is not likely to decrease in coming years, because fire risk is increasing and so is the chance of death and property loss for the nearly 40 million people living in California.
As a result, the coalition wants the legislature to approve a $500 million supplemental appropriation for forest health in January, and an additional $1.5 billion to be appropriated for the 2021-22 fiscal year. At least $50 million of those dollars would be for prescribed fire and $10 million would go to working with Indigenous tribes on cultural burns, and then $25 million in the years after. (Read more on how California’s removal of Indigenous people correlates to today’s wildfires).
“Indiengous peoples are still kind of sitting by the wayside without any means to really actively engage in the shared stewardship discussion,” said Bill Tripp, director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy with the Karuk Tribe, who live at the northern edge of the state.
It’s important that the decision to invest in wildfire prevention comes from lawmakers, because the decision to suppress wildfires in the first place was political, Martin said. She says social demand must be reflected not with political will, but with action.
“If the demand really isn't there politically, then it's really hard for us as federal, state and local agencies to really gain the momentum that we need,” she said. “I really feel that it's important that we do put the political and social pressure and the demands that can reverse [course] and support the larger landscapes that need to be treated.”
The coalition envisions the first check to come from a mix of cap-and-trade revenue and the general fund. The dollars could be used as grants for home-hardening, thinning forests, creating year-round wildfire prevention jobs and for prescribed burns.
“I think that's squarely in the realm of feasible, especially given the scale of the challenge that we've seen this year,” said Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives for the Pacific Forest Trust, a non-profit conservation land trust and policy think-tank.
Mason wants the public to understand this potential investment isn’t about defunding wildfire suppression. He says all the fire activity this past summer proved that fire suppression, as well as prevention, is needed to protect homes and human life.
“It's like trying to win a football game by only playing defense,” he said. “We really need to be proactive about addressing some of these challenges, especially when the challenges are the result of our active intervention on the landscape for the last century.”
The $1.5 billion demand for 2021-2022 will take more creativity to come up with, Mason said. But he added that significant investment in wildfire prevention is needed if spending on suppression is to ever decrease.
“It's getting impossible to just push this off as one of those issues that we'll deal with someday,” he said.
An October 2020 overview of state spending on wildfire prevention and mitigation by the Legislative Analyst’s Office says the legislature could allocate funds from four sources: the general fund, special funds like the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (which generates $3 billion annually) new taxes or fees, or one-time bonds.
“If we don't make a fundamental change in how we're approaching fire in California, we should expect summers like we had this summer,” Mason said. “It's just an unsustainable trend. We have virtually no choice but to take a different approach.”
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.