Wildfire Preparation and Air Monitoring Efforts Heat Up
On Friday, August 30th in Sacramento, local leaders heard new eye-opening statistics about the state of California’s forests. Compared to last year’s 1.2 million acres burned in wildfires across the state, this year has been far less destructive, with less than 5% of 2018’s fire-scarred acreage burned so far in 2019. With under four months to go before 2020, there is hope that we can continue to manage wildfires at the current pace and save lives in the process.
Every three months, the Valley Vision-managed Cleaner Air Partnership gathers business leaders, agency representatives, environmental advocates, elected officials, and others to discuss pressing topics in the air quality space. On August 30th at the Sacramento Regional Builders’ Exchange (SRBX), 55 attendees had a conversation about the State of California’s wildfire preparation efforts and received an update on implementation of Community Air Protection efforts (also known as AB 617) in the South Sacramento – Florin area. A full video of the gathering can be viewed here.
The meeting kicked off with an update from Pat Shelby, a resident of the South Sacramento community where Florin Road crosses Highway 99. This community faces deep environmental inequities related to air pollution in particular, and last year was designated one of ten AB 617 implementation communities across the state. AB 617 (also known as the ‘Community Air Protection Program’) empowers residents to take ownership of air monitoring and community investments meant to alleviate environmental injustices. Currently, Pat serves as Vice Chair on the Community Steering Committee which is guiding deployment of air monitors and working toward a Community Air Monitoring Plan, in partnership with the local Sac Metro Air District, to be informed by the monitoring data. The Committee meets monthly and the public is encouraged to attend. You can find more information, including an upcoming meeting schedule on the Sac Metro Air District website.
A panel of wildfire and forest management experts then took the stage: Supervisor Brian Veerkamp, representing the County of El Dorado; Evan Johnson, Executive Officer at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and head of the Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery; John Melvin, Staff Chief for Resource Protection & Improvement at CAL FIRE; and Matthew Reischman, Assistant Deputy Director for Resource Protection & Improvement at CAL FIRE. Matthew provided the following eye-opening wildfire statistics from January 1st to August 26th:
- In 2018, there were 5,300 fires across the State
- In 2019 so far, there has been a total fire count of 4,200 fires, which is shaping up to be a similar total to 2018
- In 2018, 1.2 million acres burned statewide
- So far 2019, only 55,000 acres have burned (27,000 acres in the state responsibility area, and 28,000 on federal land)
- Typically, CAL FIRE keeps 95% of wildfires on state-managed land to 10 acres burned or less
Of course, this begs the question – why are we in such better shape this year compared to last? Panelists provided a number of reasons for the improvements. This year Governor Newsom and the Legislature provided CAL FIRE with additional fire suppression resources and aircraft to combat fires. Our state continuously setting records for its worst historical fire season over the past five years has resulted in a deeper awareness of catastrophic wildfire and the danger it poses. Two “wet years” following an extended drought period increase health of trees and surrounding vegetation. Deeper snow pack combined with late spring rains have shortened the fire season, and we have been lucky with a comparative lack of high winds so far this year.
But luck isn’t enough, and state agencies and localities are moving rapidly to build resilience and to prepare. Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-05-19 on January 9, 2019, which directed CAL FIRE, in consultation with other state agencies and departments, to recommend immediate, medium and long-term actions to help prevent destructive wildfires. CAL FIRE identified 35 priority fuels reduction projects across the state to be completed before the end of 2019, a map of which can be found here.
Evan Johnson’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery authored a final report that includes recommendations to revise existing utility liability provisions, establish a wildfire fund, and take action on cost recovery and wildfire insurance.
The State of California is also in the process of pulling together a shared stewardship agreement with the federal government. CAL FIRE, the Governor’s Office, and U.S. Forest Service Region 5 officials are in talks to finalize this agreement, which will outline responsibilities of the state and the U.S. Forest Service. It will include everything from fuel break work to capacity-building and finding new uses for wood products. Workforce development and new strategies to elevate rural economies are deeply interwoven with this process.
Supervisor Veerkamp affirmed the need for homeowner education. In 2018, the State codified Public Resources Code 4291, which includes mandates for properties on forested or mountainous lands. Unfortunately, only a small minority of El Dorado County residents are aware of these laws. In line with PRC 4291, El Dorado County passed a mandatory vegetation management ordinance which crosses property lines – with vegetation required to be kept at a minimum of 100 feet from structures that will burn.
In August, the Governor announced Listos California, a new $50 Million statewide effort to build resiliency from the ground up in vulnerable communities at high risk for wildfires and other disasters, with Valley Vision serving as the support team.
John Melvin summed it up well – “the state has committed $200 Million toward wildfire preparation every year for the next five years. Can we continue to spend $200 Million annually to do this work?” In order to continue to treat overgrown forests at risk of wildfire and to ensure markets for the debris that is generated, commercialization becomes a priority and an avenue to real change. If we work together to find innovative solutions, perhaps we can make certain that this work gets done.
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Adrian Rehn is a Valley Vision Project Manager managing the Cleaner Air Partnership and Valley Vision’s online communications.