CA Teams Up With Federal Government to Thin Forests

Over the weekend, California’s wildfires reached historic scale as a single fire covered 314,207-acres across Napa, Lake, Solano, and Sonoma counties. As New York Magazine reported, in just five days, more land has been burned than in all of 2019, and 500,000 of those acres are in and around the Bay Area. A storm that brought 12,000 lightning strikes started 585 fires which have burned a million acres so far.

And while climate change is almost certainly fueling the fires, a century of development and fire suppression have left vast amounts of highly-flammable dry vegetation across the state. It’s for this reason that last year the state of California fast-tracked a plan for brush clearing and last week signed an MOU with the USDA to begin a partnership to thin 1 million acres of forest a year by 2025.

Why This Matters: While President has continually criticized California, blaming wildfires solely on forest management (even threatening to deny relief funding to the state), the actual means to help mitigate wildfires are complicated. According to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, of the 33 million acres of forest land in California, 57% is owned and managed by the federal government, 40% by private landowners and 3% by the state.

Chris Field, director of the Stanford Wood Institute for the Environment, agrees that fuel reduction and fire breaks are important but explained to AP that these measures are just the beginning, adding,

“We also need to upgrade homes and businesses to make them more fire resistant, improve defensible spaces around buildings, and limit ignitions, including from downed power lines.”

The Background: As AP reported in April of 2019, in May 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown called for doubling the amount of forest land treated each year in California by 2023. The state significantly increased the money it was spending on those efforts, with the Legislature earmarking $1 billion over five years in funds generated by the state’s carbon trading program.

Then in December of 2019, the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection approved a vegetation management program based on more than a decade of analysis of the potential environmental damage from removing different types of fuel, ranging from alpine trees to chaparral. The move sought to fast-track tree-thinning projects, by allowing preapproved environmental analyses rather than starting fresh each time to meet the requirements of California’s strict environmental laws, as AP reported.

Planning Ahead: As The Mercury News reported this weekend, California’s new partnership with the federal government will be part of a three-step plan.

  • The first part will entail is urging residents to clear “defensible space” around their homes.
  • Second is creating thinned-out areas, known as “shaded fuel breaks,” between wild areas and communities, like a project the state completed along Highway 17 between Los Gatos and Summit Road in Santa Cruz County last year.
  • And, finally, finishing larger restoration projects to thin trees and brush back to more historic levels, first with chain saws, and then in several years, with controlled burns.

However, this plan is not without its challenges. Residents worry that controlled burns will add to dangerous air quality, while others worry about what to do with all the biomass that will result from brush clearing. And while most environmental groups are generally supportive of the plan, they have expressed that all actions should be guided by science and not the political desires of the logging industry.

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