Trump disaster relief cut-off may cost California $10 billion
President Trump's threat to halt California supplemental disaster funding for wildfire and floods unless "they get their act together" could cost the state $10 billion.
Floods from a cyclical wet weather year could be more financially devastating to California than the $27 billion in losses from two years of record-sized wildfires that burned three million acres.
California continually slashed necessary infrastructure spending over the last decade in order to achieve constitutionally mandated balanced budgets. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) awarded California the booby prize for the worst state in the nation for its $65-billion infrastructure deficit involving dams, waterways, flood control, roads, bridges, seaports, and tunnels.
When natural disasters hit, federal law requires that cities and counties act as the first two layers of disaster response. If the event overwhelms local resources and a governor declares state of emergency, an appeal can be made to the president for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist as the third level of responder in dealing with disaster damage. The California insurance commissioner revealed a record $14 billion of California wildfire insurance losses were recorded in 2017, and catastrophe-modeler Risk Management Solutions estimates 2018 wildfire insurance losses of at least another $13 billion.
FEMA has already made California disaster relief allocations of over $1 billion in 2017 and about $1.5 billion in 2018 to pay for rebuilding streets, public infrastructure, private homes, rental housing, and cleanup costs. But Gov. Brown made a request to the Trump administration for another $9 billion in supplemental relief to pay for November's Camp Fire and Southern California wildfires.
The U.S. Forest Service released a report that fire suppression as a percentage of its annual budget has skyrocketed from 16 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015 and is expected to hit 67 percent in 2025. With California sucking up over half of the $3 billion in federal wildfire suppression spending in each of the last two years, the U.S. Forest Service investments in fire prevention continue to shrivel.
California officials like to deflect their liability for the state's rising wildfire costs by pointing out that the U.S. government owns 57 percent of California forestlands, while the state and local agencies own just 3 percent. But many of the 18,000 blazes that have devastated California since 2017 started out as brushfires and then escalated to wildfires that destroyed thousands of houses in heavily populated areas such as Ventura, Redding, Paradise, and the Wine Country.
Gov. Brown claimed that the dramatic increase in wildfires is the "New Normal" from climate change. The New York Times added that California since 2012 has not had "a month without a wildfire burning – a stark contrast to previous decades, when fire officials saw the fall and winter as a time to plan and regroup."
But 2012 was also the last year before Obama's agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, "finalized a rule governing the management of 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, establishing a new blueprint to guide everything from logging to recreation and renewable energy development," according to the Washington Post.
The California Board of Forestry also issued a new set of regulations called the "2013 Road Rules." The rules drastically increased the costs and delays associated with submitting "timber harvesting plans." As a result of destroying the economics of the industry, hundreds of logging roads that had acted as fire breaks for a century were abandoned. Wildfires now have more fuel and firefighter access to forest has been constricted.
California's newly inaugurated governor, Gavin Newsom, responded to President Trump's threat by tweeting that "disasters and recovery are no time for politics." Newsom in his campaign stump speeches: "the science is clear: Increased fire threat because of climate change is becoming a fact of life in our state." As one of the most progressive politicians in the state, Newsom continues to oppose any increases in logging. He has argued that the state needs a combination of technological solutions to prevent wildfires that include installing an early-warning infrared camera network in the forests and using artificial intelligence technology to predict and contain wildfires.