Change wildfire strategy to prevention in California, coalition says

22 October 2020

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USA – For wildfire ravaged Butte County, it may have been a message that residents skipped over 10 years ago, but would welcome this year as a different way to deal with wildfires.

A coalition of environmental groups and business organizations is asking the California Legislature for a significant investment in preventing wildfires.

On a online press briefing Wednesday, the Resilient Forest Coalition that includes the Nature Conservancy, Pacific Forest Trust Fund and Sierra Business Council, among others, asked the state to dedicate $2 billion to wildfire prevention next year.

That money would include allocations for alternative programs, like more controlled burning, prevention measures around urban interfaces, community borders and individual residences, plus grants for smaller programs and workforce training.

But it also pointed out that changing how wildfires are battled can change the understanding of what healthy forests are, and how communities can be healthy as well.

At the bottom line is dedicating funding to wildfire prevention strategies, ranging from thinning forests to controlled burns.

Speakers noted that controlled burning is actually safer for residents exposed to smoke for a shorter time than the megafires which may string along for weeks. Acknowledging that some controlled burns get away, there is not the same risk of human fatalities, it was pointed out.

A healthy forest is able to sequester carbon rather than the uncontrolled release of it in huge wildland fires reaching hundreds of thousands of acres like California saw this year. Estimates measure the number of acres burned this year at more than 4 million acres. The still-burning North Complex in Butte and Plumas counties on Wednesday is at nearly 319,000 acres, with 15 fatalities, and the August Complex in the Mendocino National Forest on the westside of the valley at more than 1 million acres and one fatality.

Wildfire prevention can also be the foundation for workforce development through training and deploying future crews in comparison to exhausted firefighting teams drained by depleted resources and diminished manpower.

Kelly Martin, retired chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park, noted that it’s not only physical activity involving fire, but the economic impact of how fires leave communities and indivduals, but also the environmental and social impacts of fires that’s so dangerous.

Getting used to smoke or making allowances for it may be a future reaction, she noted, along with insistence that long-term funding be made for year-round burning.

Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe, noted that a fire can cost California $50 to $100 million per event, and that putting a financial commitment up front may be money better spent.

Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives at the Pacific Forest Fund, noted that 2020 as a fire year is not an anomaly but what’s becoming the norm.

The coalition will ask the state for an appropriation for this budget year of $500 million dedicated to wildfire prevention, rather than wait until the next budget cycle, although another ask of $1.5 billion will be on the table then.

About $50 million is being asked for controlled burning, including an allocation to tribal burning programs, which have been growing in support.

Mason suggested that the state could pay for this with Cap and Trade auction revenue, along with General Fund allocations. He suggested legislative conversations in August were favorable to this.

He also suggested that the long-term vision of forest management needed to have a significant budget to make a difference, rather than “little proposals” that might not add to the momentum or make a long-term strategy.

He also pointed out the “weighing act” of the cost of fire suppression, plus loss of lives, health, community and asset costs from wildfire devastation should be considered.

Federal help

The role of the federal government has been a huge concern of California, according to David Edelson of the Nature Conservancy, with more than half of California’s forests coming under federal control. Congress should be stepping up.

Forest management, he said, should include the reduced accumulation of fuel loads, as well as making room for fire-resistant trees.

A public-private partnership like the French Meadows Project in Placer County, that has tackled 20,000 acres of forest thinning, should be upscaled.

Air quality deteriorates tremendously under wildfire conditions, while short-term controlled burns leave less impact to health-sensitive residents, according to Mary Prunicki director of Air Pollution and Health Research at Stanford University.

“It’s clearly less harmful to health to use prescribed burns to minimize future megafires and the unnecessary loss of life and health from smoke exposure.”


One of the most interesting presentations included the shift of workforce development, away from fighting fires to fire prevention, by Brittany Benesi of Sierra Business Council.

Wildfires have a tendency to occur in rural, lower-income areas, and having education programs in place can produce a trained workforce that ranges from entry level jobs to high-paying careers in forest management and reforestation.

Martin also suggested that technology such as artificial intelligence, geographic information systems and remote sensing could focus prevention methods on areas not burned for decades or longer, and provide more jobs.

The online program can be viewed at

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