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The State of Wildfire Risk Reduction in California

Lori Pottinger July 22, 2019
photo - forest and flames

After a few horrific years of extreme wildfires, California has been taking steps to reduce future risks with new programs, increased funding, and new policy efforts. We talked to Van Butsic—a land use scientist at UC Berkeley and an adjunct fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center—about these efforts.

PPIC: Is California doing enough to manage its forests and reduce wildfire risk?

Van Butsic: Probably not, but it’s definitely doing a lot more than it was five years ago. The state has made a substantial effort to deal with the issues around wildfires—just not yet at the scale needed to get big results.

The state has been pretty active in the past year on addressing some of the shortcomings of federal forest management—the federal government is the biggest landowner of California’s headwater forests. One interesting thing the state is doing is using some funding—about $200 million a year—from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund on fuel reduction projects. These projects are managed by multiple stakeholders, and many are on federal lands.

PPIC: The Newsom administration has taken additional steps to address wildfire risk. Where do you think they’re on the right track? What elements are still needed?

VB: They’re doing a better job in realizing we need to have more hands-on management. Governor Newsom issued an emergency order that reduced environmental review for a handful of fuel reduction projects, which means they can take place a little quicker and address fire risk this season. And they’re investing a bit more money in fire suppression.

I’d like to see more work in building community wildfire resilience across the state. We need stronger policies that start at the house and work outward—to ensure that homes are hardened against wildfires (for example, with more fire-resistant roofing materials) and have defensible space around them. Most importantly, we need a systematic plan to prevent further expansion of communities into areas where catastrophic wildfires are a risk.

PPIC: Talk about new funding tools that can help improve forest health.

VB: One approach being considered depends on the state’s willingness to pay for measures to reduce the risk of big wildfires as part of its effort to reduce carbon emissions. The idea would be to use the carbon market to fund forest management practices.

A second area where we’re seeing bit of action is on water issues. Forest thinning can in some cases lead to more water in streams. We’ve seen a few projects that fund forest management activities in hopes of getting more water as a benefit. The big question is, how much more water will you get by thinning forests? It’s a pretty complex question that has to do with existing vegetation and the elevation of the land. It’s a bit of a challenge to find the sweet spot—the science isn’t settled yet on where forest management can increase water yield.

PPIC: What about fire risk outside the headwaters?

California has many forest types and landscapes that are prone to wildfire. Many of our larger wildfires have been in the Sierra headwater forests, which are currently too dense—they’re primed for large, high severity wildfires, and we need to address this problem.

But many of the homes impacted by wildfires in the past decade are not in traditional headwater forest areas. Managing these risks is really different from managing forests—it requires different policies and funding. Building codes are one way, but they’re mostly devised at the local level and aren’t uniform—some municipalities have better fire-resistance standards. The state does fire-severity-zone mapping, but not a lot of local governments are paying attention to that. I’m not sure what the state’s role should be in that regard. I’ve done some work in France, where the federal government says where you can and can’t develop in areas prone to wildfire, and as a result they have far fewer homes in at-risk areas. I’m not sure if that’s a tradeoff Californians would be willing to make.

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