Apr 25 2019
By: Dianne Feinstein
Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News
Governor Newsom last month declared a wildfire state of emergency in California. The governor’s action’s followed a Cal Fire report that more than half of the state’s wildlands – 25 million acres – face a very high or extreme fire threat, placing hundreds of nearby communities at risk.
At the same time, the United States Senate is considering a disaster relief package that will send federal dollars to states that have suffered from hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters. California will claim a big chunk of this money following the most disastrous and deadly wildfire season ever. And the underlying cause is climate change.
It’s because of climate change that wildfires are growing worse and worse. But make no mistake: we can’t wait for the world to reduce emissions to address our wildfire problem. We must rethink our approach to fighting these blazes now – lives depend on it.
Throughout my career in public service, I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects wildfires have on communities. But the fires we’re seeing now are different. They’re moving faster, burning hotter and leaving less behind than anything we’ve experienced before.
The recent Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It killed 85 people, destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and burned more than 150,000 acres. That fire spread as fast as 80 acres per minute, according to some estimates.
Nine of the state’s 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred in the last five years. Last year, a record 1.8 million acres burned in California, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and leading to billions in damage. This isn’t normal.
Increasingly deadly wildfires are the result of decades of inaction on climate change. In fact, the latest National Climate Assessment found the number of acres burned in the western United States over the past 30 years is double what would have burned if the climate wasn’t changing.
As temperatures continue to rise and precipitation patterns grow more unpredictable, the problem will only grow worse. Dealing with this challenge demands an all-of-the-above approach, even if some solutions aren’t universally popular. It’s also going to require more cooperation between federal, state and local governments and the private sector.
This doesn’t mean clearcutting our forests. Or that we should abandon landmark environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act. But it does mean we need to move more aggressively to rid our forests of dead trees and thick undergrowth before they fuel the next deadly wildfire. We need to follow the best scientific guidance there is to make our forests more resilient for the coming years.
There are 130 million dead trees in California’s forests, the result of both the historic drought and bark beetle populations that are thriving as temperatures warm. A single spark in the middle of those dead trees can lead to an inferno.
The federal government must step up its efforts to remove those trees. Nearly 60% of California’s forests are on federal land, compared to just 3% on state land. However, 71% of the acres burned in California over the last 10 years have been on federal land.
Congress has provided the Forest Service with new tools and additional flexibility to tackle the problem, but fires don’t stop at state and federal boundaries. That is why I recently met with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to discuss how we can improve coordination across land jurisdictions. We both agreed that joint federal and state action is necessary.
Together we need to expand the use and increase the size of firebreaks, gaps in vegetation between forests and homes that prevent wildfires from spreading into our communities.
We need to expand markets for timber and wood products from California’s forests, including innovative solutions such as cross-laminated timber. Biomass energy generation also must be expanded, which would not only help remove overgrowth from the forests but could also provide a sustainable energy source for California’s homes and businesses.
One area that other states have had success is reintroducing prescribed fires into the ecosystem. California already does this, but we could combine mechanical thinning, the installation of fuel breaks, hardening of infrastructure and creating defensible spaces, with prescribed fires to create more fire-resilient communities.
We also need to make sure California has the necessary assets to respond to fires. Last year, I secured seven C-130 air tankers from the Air Force for Cal Fire, giving California the largest aerial firefighting fleet in the world. These planes will help Cal Fire aggressively contain wildfires before they threaten communities.
We should also invest in safer power transmission lines and other methods to harden infrastructure and in advanced detection systems to identify wildfires sooner.
While California has requirements for defensible space around at-risk homes, incentives could be provided for homeowners to use fire-safe building materials.
The federal government could also increase support for outreach efforts, so that risks and mitigation strategies are communicated to vulnerable individuals and communities.
Ultimately, we must face the reality that rising temperatures will increase the risk of wildfires. None of these actions will completely protect us from fire. But we can and should prepare for this future now. As recent tragedies have demonstrated, lives depend on it.
Dianne Feinstein represents California in the United States Senate