Monday, December 28, 2020

The handling of the Western mega-fires is another reminder we live in a solution-phobic society

We've had some nice showers recently. We're supposed to get more tomorrow (Monday) with winter storm warnings promising snow in the mountains. It is, of course, welcome. The West always needs water and we've had a fairly dry fall which in recent years has meant fire season threatened to stretch into the winter.

But while the rains are bringing a respite from the mega-fire, they are also a tragically wasted opportunity. Despite a virtually absolute scientific consensus as to the steps we desperately need to be taking, almost nothing is being done and very few people seem to care.

Writing for the LA Times, Bettina Boxall has an excellent account of the depressing details.

When COVID-19 blew a hole in California’s spending plans last spring, one of the things state budget-cutters took an axe to was wildfire prevention.

A $100-million pilot project to outfit older homes with fire-resistant materials was dropped. Another $165 million earmarked for community protection and wildland fuel-reduction fell to less than $10 million.

A few months later, the August siege of dry lightning turned 2020 into a record-shattering wildfire year. The state’s emergency firefighting costs are expected to hit $1.3 billion, pushing the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s total spending this fiscal year to more than $3 billion.

The numbers highlight the enormous chasm between what state and federal agencies spend on firefighting and what they spend on reducing California’s wildfire hazard — a persistent gap that critics say ensures a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.


Fire scientists have long called for a dramatic increase in the use of prescribed fire — that is, controlled burns that trained crews deliberately set in forests and grasslands during mild weather conditions.

They have urged federal agencies to thin more overgrown stands of young trees in the mid-elevation Sierra Nevada and let nature do some housekeeping with well-behaved lightning fires in the backcountry.

They point to the dire need to retrofit older homes to guard against the blizzard of embers that set neighborhoods ablaze in the most destructive, wind-driven fires.

Yet year after year, state and federal funding for such work remains a pittance compared to the billions of dollars spent on firefighting. 


[Jessica Morse, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees Cal Fire] cited an August agreement between the state and the U.S. Forest Service in which they each committed to annually treating 500,000 acres [a fraction of what researchers say we need to be doing. -- MP] of California forest and rangelands by 2025 with a variety of fuel-reduction practices, including prescribed fire, thinning overgrown woodlands, timber harvest and grazing.

Yet this memorandum of understanding is non-binding and includes neither money nor staffing.

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