At least six people dead. More than 1,000 homes leveled and another 17,000 under threat. Nearly 13,000 firefighters, from as far away as Florida and Maine to Australia and New Zealand, battling ferocious wildfires burning across California.
California firefighters and emergency responders are being pummeled by increasingly extreme and unpredictable wildfires as the state’s climate becomes hotter and the land grows drier.
“The need to protect these communities … is requiring more firefighters, more resources all the time,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said in an interview. “Fire is a way of life in California. It’s not going away, so we have to learn to live with it.”
The deadly blazes, in Sonoma County in 2017 and in Shasta County this summer, are prompting urgent calls for a major change of course in how California prepares for and responds to wildfires. State lawmakers, fire officials and both candidates for governor say if the state doesn’t act, conditions will worsen in years to come. More people will die, more homes will be lost, and large swaths of pristine forestland will be wiped out, they fear.
“We’re in for a really rough ride,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference Wednesday in Sacramento. “It’s going to get expensive, it’s going to get dangerous, and we have to apply all our creativity to make the best of what is going to be an increasingly bad situation.”
Officials are beginning to undertake a broad, more ambitious prevention strategy that includes aggressively thinning out thick forests in rural, rugged parts of the state; increasing state funding for firefighters, training and equipment; incorporating into firefighter training new methods for battling unpredictable, wind-driven fires; and working with local governments to update land use plans and building codes that discourage development in fire-prone areas or call for more safety measures.
“The risks are much bigger than what we may have traditionally thought of,” Pimlott said. “These are literally 100-, 150-foot flame lengths … there’s no way we’re going to stop that kind of a fire, so we are changing tactics.”
Pimlott said the key priority is protecting life and property.
“We’re going to make every effort to protect these communities, to get people evacuated, but what it means is we may not be able to put a bulldozer or firefighter or engine company down in front of that fire,” he said. “We use roads, we use ridge tops, we use geographic features where we can have a much higher probability of success.”
It’s also about finding money to hire firefighters and purchase equipment, fire officials and lawmakers said.
“We have a limited number of resources,” Pimlott said. “You always want more. … California, even now, has become very good at organizing limited resources and identifying priorities.”
Since the fiscal year began July 1, Cal Fire has already spent $115 million of the $443 million allocated in this year’s budget for fighting wildfires, and the state is on track to exceed the current budget if wildfires intensify. The worst fires tend to occur in late fall and early winter.
During last year’s fires, the state spent $773 million, far more than the $427 million initially approved.
Brown said Wednesday that the state will spend what it must to attack the fires.
“There is money in this year’s budget,” he said. “In a year or slightly longer, that money will start to diminish. … Things will get much tighter in the next five years as the business cycle turns negative and the fires continue.”
He suggested California has been caught off-guard by the current demands.
“No one expected a fire tornado,” Brown said. “We’re getting a new phenomenon and that new phenomenon is we’re in a new climate weather era and so we have to learn.”
Brown since 2015 has directed more than $800 million in one-time budget funds for fire prevention, including the removal of dead trees and other vegetation that fuel fires.
In May, he outlined in an executive order a $96 million plan to expand vegetation thinning, controlled fires and reforestation on up to 500,000 acres of land. He also spent $160 million in cap-and-trade revenue to support forest improvements and fire protection.
The plan also seeks to make it easier for private landowners to thin vegetation on their properties by streamlining the approvals process for permits needed to do so.
Some say the state’s efforts to date don’t go far enough.
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox blasted state lawmakers for not adequately funding fire prevention. He downplayed concerns voiced by his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Brown about climate change and the increasing threat of disastrous wildfires.
Cox, who toured the fire zone in Shasta County this week with Republican lawmakers, said “I don’t know” if climate change is human-caused.
“Politicians like Mr. Brown and Mr. Newsom are distracting people,” Cox said. “What’s really going on here is they’re blaming this on climate change to cover up for the fact that they haven’t devoted the time and the resources and the planning to actually doing something about forestry management.”
Cox also backs the thinning of forests, saying the state should be investing in “fire breaks, controlled burns and clearing out dead and diseased trees.”
He said the state also needs to invest more heavily in boosting the ranks of firefighters, training and equipment.
“We’re going to find the money, believe me,” Cox said.
Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said “Cox’s Trumpian climate change denials, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, only undermine what little credibility remains in his campaign.”
Newsom outlined a detailed approach for how he’d address the looming wildfire threat to California. He said the state must improve vegetation management, boost funding for fire prevention and containment, bolster resources for fire departments across the state, invest in weather monitoring technology and a statewide early warning system and more aggressively lower greenhouse gas emissions to put the state on a path to 100 percent renewable energy.
“The science is clear — increased fire threat due to climate change is becoming a fact of life in our state,” Newsom said in a statement. “We need a comprehensive strategy and more resources to address this growing crisis.”
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Dahle, a Republican from Lassen County, and Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat from Sonoma County, are pushing, as part of the state’s broader efforts, legislation easing regulations and allowing greater thinning of trees, grasses and other vegetation from thick forests that allow wildfires to spread so quickly.
“By not doing that, we’re burning down our forests,” Dahle said. “We know if we don’t do anything, it’s going to burn.”
Wood said it needs to be done on a “large scale,” with ongoing state money. He also floated the idea of greater state investment in an early fire detection system.
“I firmly believe, as I know Brian does, that we need to invest more in reducing the fuel load,” Wood said. “I think it’s long overdue and it’s going to take a sustained, long-term investment.”
Dahle voiced support for ideas being floated by other lawmakers to redirect a larger share of state cap-and-trade money into wildfire prevention.
“I think there’s a lot better places we could spend our greenhouse gas monies,” he said, noting a proposal from state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, to dedicate a quarter of the state’s cap-and-trade funds to pay for power utility infrastructure upgrades and forest management to help reduce the threat of wildfires.
“We still need to fund firefighters and tankers and helicopters,” Dahle said. “But we also need to take the smallest trees out. If you thin out the canopy, fires burn slower and not as intensely.”