No Excuses, California Has the Money to Get Forests Under Control in 2019

On January 10, 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a $144 billion general fund budget on Thursday that’s up 4 percent from the current year and predicts a $21.4 billion surplus from robust tax collections and slower growth of state health care costs.

California Has the Budget to Fix its Forests

Do not wait for Federal Money. There is not enough budget in the US Forest Service. I live in California. Why should other states pay the bulk of the costs of California’s multi-decade screwup of forests? Especially if California has a massive budget surplus?

A century of fire suppression and major droughts have combined to kill 129 million trees and counting in California’s forests. The dead trees are fuel for future fires.

Dead pines

Florida and other states did not screw up by almost stopping controlled burns for many decades.

There should be no budget surplus in California. It should all go to forest management and controlled burns. Rapid logging should also be used to offset the costs.

PGE, Northern California’s utility is declaring bankruptcy. PGE is a dumpster fire of a company. The Erin Brockovich water contamination problem was PGE. There are a dozen entries in Wikipedia for PGE under disasters and controversies.

Kevin Heirs is a wildland fire scientist with Tall Timbers. He said in the Western US they are plugging a dam breach with Scotch tape. “Those are deployment sites,” he says, meaning a place where firefighters can survive last stands beneath fire shelters. “How does a few hundred acres of treated forest protect a town from a fire that’s throwing embers two miles ahead of itself?

California needs to create one-mile wide fuel breaks around all cities and towns. This is where the forests are cleared out and plants that are not a forest fire risk are grown. The fuel breaks have been a basic part of forest management for many decades.

How Can There Be a $21 Billion Budget Surplus and a $20+ Billion Forest Problem at the Same Time?

In California’s Sierra Nevada alone, the backlog of land that needs either fire or thinning is about the size of Kentucky. Restoring that would cost between $6 billion and $8 billion. California can afford this with a massive budget surplus. The out of control fires they take damages cities and towns have cost many billions in homes.

How does this work? $21.4 Billion budget surplus for California in 2019. $20+ billion in forest management and controlled burn funding gap. $21 Billion in wildfire property damage and costs in 2017 and 2018. $185+ billion in total economic damage from California fires in 2017 and 2018.

There should be over ten thousand firefighters hired now in California. The controlled burns should be going on around the clock. The legislative hurdles need to be forced away. Any landowner that is blocking a needed control burn needs to get bought out with eminent domain.

The 2019 the US Forest Service budget for discretionary appropriations is $4.77 billion, a decrease of $486 million from the FY 2018 annualized Continuing Resolution amount. It includes $1.72 billion for the management of National Forest System lands and $2.5 billion for Wildland Fire Management.

California Should be at 4 to 5 Million Acres per Year of Controlled Burn

The Forest Service goal for California in 2019 is 250,000 acres of fire and “mechanical thinning,” which is using equipment to remove smaller trees. The California Department of Forestry set 60,000 acres as this year’s target for prescribed fire and other fuel-reduction efforts on non-federal lands, with 500,000 acres as a goal using logging and forest thinning as well as fire. “Those targets are what’s required to make an ecologically meaningful difference,” says Helge Eng, California’s deputy director of resource management. Governor Jerry Brown allocated $256 million to support the controlled burns.

Newsom announced plans to expand the state’s emergency preparedness for wildfires, including a five-year, $1 billion forest management plan in his next budget. He also wants the state to spend about $300 million for new helicopters and planes to combat fires as well as to update its communications equipment and install more fire-spotting cameras.

Way More Damage Cost than on Preventative Management

33,000 structures in California have been destroyed due to fires in the past two years. Fires and floods have claimed 167 lives in the last two years.

The 2017 California wildfires collectively caused at least $18.0 billion (2018 USD) in damages, including $13.2 billion in insured losses, $3 billion in other economic losses, and $1.8 billion in fire suppression costs, making the 2017 California fires the costliest on record. The total economic cost, including fire suppression, insurance, direct and indirect economic losses, and recovery expenditures is estimated at about $180 billion (2017 USD). This number includes economic harm to the wine industry, where several wineries in Napa and Sonoma were destroyed, and where many wine grapes were severely damaged by smoke. Cal Fire spent $700 million during fiscal year 2017, far exceeding the approximately $426 million the agency had budgeted that year for fire suppression.

The 2018 California fires have caused more than $3.5 billion (2018 USD) in damages, including $1.792 billion in fire suppression costs.

Florida leads the way with controlled burns and burned more than 2 million acres last year.

Why is California having less than 4 of the controlled burns of Florida (60,000 acres versus over 2 million)?

Why is California having less than 25% of the burns and thinning of forest compared to Florida?

Why is California spending about 3.6% of the budget surplus on controlled burns and forest management ($756 million out of $21.4 billion)?

Last year, 202,250 prescribed fires burned approximately 12 million acres in the USA. 160,000 of those burns (8 million acres’ worth) were in the South. Ranchers, hunters, and homeowners all burn because it’s faster than raking and better for their pastures and woods. They usually skip fire-resistant clothes and opt for blue jeans.

The national strategy for thinning and burning prioritizes the 1.5 million homes and $50 billion in property built-in areas designated as an extreme fire risk. And very little gets done. Out West, fewer than 1 million acres see prescribed fire each year. Each national forest acts as a fiefdom, burning whatever acreage it can with whatever limited personnel is available before the fire season sucks them into triage.

Florida has 15 million acres of forest and California has 33 million acres of forest.

Less Air Pollution and Safer

Prescribed burns produce less air pollution than wildfires, any smoke generates loud, persistent complaints — and for good reasons: A recent American Heart Association study found wildfire smoke raises the risk of heart attack 42 percent above smoke-free air. A 2015 study published by the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology reported a 16 to 26 percent increase in the use of relief medications in a sample of 6,160 asthmatic children after southern California wildfires in 2003 and 2007.

Air emissions technology is evolving nearly as quickly as California’s urgency to prepare for more infernos. Using portable air pollution monitors and weather stations, combined with modeling satellite images of smoke plumes, fire technicians are increasingly able to determine the greatest concentrations of smoke and where the plumes are headed. That allows firefighters to adjust how they’re managing the blaze to limit pollution. Using prescribed fires strategically can actually protect public health by reducing out-of-control fires.

UC Berkeley forestry specialist Bill Stewart said California could reduce fire risk by half on 80 percent of the acres and actually break even by embracing things such as logging.

Forest thinning projects aren’t just done by crews with chainsaws. When they’re scaled up, machines called masticators and skids sort through trees that were thinned.

California needs to aggressively use controlled burns to clear out overgrown forests.

In May, 2018 Gov. Jerry Brown created a forest management task force to identify windows of opportunity for prescribed burns and streamline the permitting process. In September, 2018 Brown signed a bill aimed at expanding the use of prescribed fires by creating ways for landowners and agencies to share costs and liability.

There is a lack of firefighters, equipment and funding, according to research by Courtney Schultz, a forest policy expert at Colorado State University. Fire suppression has become such a monumental task that it often occupies all available personnel and funds, leaving nothing left for things like prescribed burning.

California has already given the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, money for six crews dedicated solely to prescribed fire. The department also got funds to train prescribed-burn fire bosses throughout the state.

This is too tiny. There should be hundreds of crews dedicated to prescribed fire.

No Excuses. Fix the Problem

There will be more fires in California in 2019 and 2020 and every year going forward. There is no excuse for not spending the money that is available to fix it. Why let the same or more damage occur with wildfire instead of controlled fires?

1 thought on “No Excuses, California Has the Money to Get Forests Under Control in 2019”

Comments are closed.