In California, the first week of May has come to represent the beginning of wildfire season, with events to raise awareness of the dangers to come.
This year, however, is different. The ongoing drought, the continued mismanagement of forestlands and the nonsensical funding formula for fire prevention have led to a year-round wildfire season in California.
While firefighters have already started fighting fires this season, the aftermath from recent years will continue to be felt in the state’s rural counties for decades to come. California wildfires are increasing in both severity and frequency, and these megafires are threatening our forests, watersheds, natural resources, communities, local economies and now our statewide goals to reduce greenhouse gases.
Under Assembly Bill 32, greenhouse gas emissions are to be cut to 1990 levels by 2020. It assumed no net emissions in wildlands, but wildfires are now a major cause of carbon dioxide emissions in California. The U.S. Forest Service put the total from last year’s King fire in El Dorado County at 4.1 million metric tons, while the 2013 Rim fire accounted for more than 11 million metric tons. And just Wednesday, the governor raised the greenhouse gas reduction target to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 – the most aggressive benchmark enacted by any government in North America.
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A new study led by the National Park Service and UC Berkeley, and funded by the California Air Resources Board, found that wildfires and deforestation are contributing more than expected to the state’s gas emissions. While forests and vegetation in state wildlands stored an estimated 850 million tons of carbon in 2010, they also accounted for about 69 million tons of carbon emitted, as much as 5 to 7 percent of emissions from all sectors.
California encompasses more than 43 million acres of federal land, and four out of the state’s five largest wildfires over the last century have occurred on federal land. Current state and federal laws make it a challenge to complete forest management and fire-prevention projects on public lands. Fuel reduction in national forests is wholly inadequate and underfunded, placing rural counties at tremendous risk when catastrophic wildfires occur.
The Rural County Representatives of California member counties are home to nearly 16 million acres of Forest Service land. More than $1 billion is spent each year fighting fires in our national forests, yet money needed to reduce fire risk is dwindling. The cost of prevention is small investment relative to the skyrocketing costs of fire suppression.
Twenty years ago, the Forest Service was spending 15 percent of its budget on firefighting; today, it’s spending 40 percent or more. Unfortunately, efforts to review and change the way wildfires are funded have failed, leaving rural communities holding the bag when a catastrophic fire hits.
Last month, the Association of California Water Agencies, The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy issued a joint call for renewed attention on California’s headwaters and the role they play in the state’s water supply and ecological health. That is a needed first step to reduce the severity of California’s wildfires.
Patricia Megason is executive vice president of Rural County Representatives of California.