California Wildfire Season Is Just Around The Corner

In 2020, California had a nightmare forest fire season, made worse by our total COVID shut-down. The fires were so extensive that, to escape them, one would have to have left the state entirely. No place was spared, coast, inland, north, or south. With COVID, no airline was flying and, if you did get somewhere far away, there were likely no places to stay without a two-week quarantine. We were trapped in a way that defied all logic. There's no evidence that the State of California is making serious efforts to prevent that nightmare from happening all over again.

Sitting for weeks on end in the one room in the house with an air-conditioning unit, with my air purifier and humidifier both cranking at maximum, I had a sinus headache that never quit, the energy level of a banana slug, and little clarity of mind. It got old really fast. But there was no way out. The smoke/air quality index remained in the red and purple, with the occasional foray into yellow when the wind blew in from the ocean. There were days when the light from the sun didn’t get through at all, and the world was purely red.

We’re experiencing another drought year in California. This means, most likely, another awful fire season unless the state has done work to mitigate the terrible conditions that caused the fires. These conditions include years of laissez-faire neglect of our huge wooded areas and grassland.

The green movement has meant that, for years now, the state has curtailed all forest management. Instead, things have been “natural,” so as not to disturb the various fauna. It started years ago with a push to end lumber extraction in the state.

The environmentalists vilified forest management and clear-cutting any area at all. Although lumber companies that harvested the wood also cultivated it anew, planting new forests for each one they took, the environmentalists knew it was all evil. It didn’t matter that clear cuts also served as fire breaks. Natural was better. (Too bad, now, that millions of natural acres have just burned down).

Then the environmentalists really started piling on, with the spotted owl being threatened (1990), and so on; they’ve extended their absurd ‘husbandry’ of resources all the way to the delta smelt, a tiny and relatively rare fish that lives in the various streams, and in whose name, water was prevented from going to the farmers in our Central Valley for years. Instead, the water in our streams was washed out to sea, unmolested, to protect this little critter nobody had ever cared about before. The practice continued until Trump stepped in for the farmers. This, for you who don’t know, is the kind of logic used in this state.

I got curious about our state’s efforts to deal with the forest’s problems. Have we done the obvious, and started properly managing them? Clearing the dead trees, the rampant dead underbrush? Have we done anything to make next year better?

Apparently, the current California budget has $3.3 billion earmarked for forest management and fire prevention, but a lot of the money actually is budgeted for fighting the inevitable fires. And mitigating climate change. Hazardous fuel reduction and wildfire mitigation plans are only two of a dozen or more areas the budget covers. Is the money being spent wisely?

In the government’s description of the budget, there are fire response, fire prevention, and forest management categories. $165 million annually for five years is allocated to forest health and fire prevention grants; $35 million annually, for five years, to “prescribed fire crews;” $10 million (ongoing, and somehow, decreasing to $6.4 million ongoing though this is not explained) allocated to wildfire prevention and recovery legislation; and a one-time $8.9 million for forest management, with the note that it refers to Prop 68.

Of these, funds for the first three of the four line-items are noted to come from the greenhouse gas reduction fund. The Prop 68 money is from a $4 billion bond issue voted for funding parks, natural resources protection, climate adaptation, water quality, and flood protection, passed in 2018.

In 2019, the Governor signed bills to “enhance wildfire mitigation, preparedness and response efforts.” This batch of bills, for the most part, seems to center on everything but forest management. Things that might be useful, such as “develop best models for defensible space and additional standards for home hardening and construction materials” are paired with such useless-sounding things as “improve engagement with culturally diverse communities for local emergency planning.”

There was mention of developing a Forestry Corps Program to operate crews that will undertake hazardous fuel reduction in high fire-risk areas. Looking up the Forestry Corps, we find that they are part of the California Conservation Corps, and they have (or had) three crews in three areas of the state and a budget of $4.45 million for FY 2019-20. I can find no mention of the budget for this year. Just a “—” under space for funding in the Legislative Analysis.

I’m getting the idea that not a heck of a lot is being put into this effort. I’d love to be wrong, but I can’t find the evidence that I am.

I do have a suggestion for the state, to improve its efforts: Take the budget now going for helping the homeless. Sequester about half of that amount. Then, offer those homeless capable of working a meaningful job. This would entail setting up a bunch of moveable tent-city-type encampments in county fairgrounds. The formerly homeless who volunteer for service would be offered amenities and work clothes, fed, and sent out with a supervisory crew from the conservation corps to work clearing underbrush in the forests.

They would be paid for their work and drugs would be strictly prohibited. They would regain self-respect and provide a real service to the community. To me, that would be a better use of my tax money than another study of how we can mitigate global warming.

IMAGES: By Terry Paulding.