As the ravages of climate change are making new headlines in the record breaking heat wave in the Northwest, California continues to grapple with our own climate-fueled disaster: wildfires and how to prevent them.
As usual, the discussion has become highly politicized, especially since Gov. Gavin Newsom, hearing the footsteps from an upcoming recall election, has been accused of misleading Californians on prevention efforts by the state.
Last year, acknowledging a documented need for more prescribed burns, California fire agencies and the U.S. Forest Service agreed on a plan to use brush clearing, logging and prescribed fires to thin out 1 million acres a year by 2025.
Newsom, however, started a firestorm of his own doing when he claimed the state had already carried out fire prevention work on 90,000 acres.
But a report last week by CapRadio and NPR said the state's own data show the actual number was 11,399 acres —although the state says the 11,399 acres were actually protecting the entire 90,000 acres.
However they're interpreted, and while the numbers show a disturbing trend by the governor's office to fudge numbers in their favor, the discrepancy misses the bigger picture: California has a huge backlog of forested areas, far beyond 90,000 acres, that urgently need prevention measures.
But here's the problem: 58% of California's 33 million acres of forest are owned by the federal government, and approximately 39% are owned by private landowners. That leaves only 3% owned by the state.
In his 2021-22 budget, Newsom has asked for $2 billion for fire safety. But that money would mostly go to state owned forest lands and to help property owners. For the lands owned by the federal government Congress so far has failed to make a major investment in wildfire prevention, even though in 2018, the U.S. Forest Service reported 99% of its forest lands were at a high risk of dangerous wildfires, and that it was utilizing controlled burns to reduce the fire risk on only 1%.
The agreement between the state and the federal government last August in the heat of the wildfire cauldron required each side to ramp up wildfire prevention efforts to 500,000 acres a year by 2025.
No one, we're certain wants a repeat of 2020, when California experienced five of the six biggest wildfires in state history that burned 4.5 million acres, killed 31 people and destroyed 10,000 homes and buildings. Santa Cruz County experienced the devastating CZU Lightning Complex fires last August that destroyed 7,567 buildings, and burned more than 86,000 acres, including historic structures and large swaths of forest in Big Basin State Park.
But, Congress has still not made a serious investment in wildfire prevention and California is not living up to its agreement on controlled burns. CalFire burned only 32,000 acres in 2020 and 24,000 acres through Memorial Day this year, according to news reports, a fraction of what has been needed. And CalFire has only committed to expanding its prescribed fire programs to 100,000 acres by 2025, far short of what the state agreed to in the deal with the federal government.
Newsom also showed that political expediency can outweigh his state concern for fire safety when he vetoed a bill last year that was aimed at discouraging housing in the "wildland-urban interface" where fires are most likely to cause severe losses in property and lives lost. His reasoning was that while wildfire resistance efforts need to be part of land use and development policies, the need for housing also is paramount.
As summer sets in and heat waves hit the West Coast and Santa Cruz County, residents already fearing what this wildfire season may bring have a right to know exactly what the state is doing to lessen the risks.
So, yes, Newsom needs to level with the public on just what CalFire has truly accomplished in wildfire prevention while he's been governor —and to provide real leadership by taking tough, even unpopular, stands on keeping the state from more devastation.
(c)2021 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
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