Opinion

California can cut wildfire risk by investing in resilient forests

A path into a Northern California redwood forest. (Photo: C. Levers, via Shutterstock)

As a 34-year employee of Cal Fire, I am deeply familiar with the consequences of state policy that for too long emphasized putting out all wildfires, rather than emphasizing the natural restorative role fire plays in California’s landscapes.

With Gov. Newsom’s new $1 billion wildfire budget, we have an opportunity to prioritize wildfire resilience rather than just wildfire suppression.

For centuries, wildfire burned California landscapes through lightning and controlled burns set by Indigenous people. It is estimated that a minimum of 4.5 million acres burned annually, yielding landscapes that could endure wildfire and thrive.

In truth, no technology removes carbon dioxide from our atmosphere as effectively as trees, which capture it in their roots, branches and leaves.

But at the turn of the twentieth century, state and federal governments began putting out all fires, even those that helped forests flourish. Putting out all fires and logging the largest and most fire-resilient trees has allowed small trees and shrubs to crowd the forest floor, becoming the fuel for extreme wildfires. Combined with the hotter and drier conditions of the last decade due to the climate crisis, we’ve created a recipe for explosive, severe, and difficult-to-contain wildfires.

In 2020, more than 4.2 million acres burned in California. Almost every state resident, whether in urban or rural areas, has felt the impact. Millions of people were plagued by toxic air that persisted for days or weeks; more than 10,000 structures were destroyed; and 31 people were killed.

Elected officials in California have for years depicted the state as a world leader on environmental protections, dedicated to reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions through policies and technology investments. It’s a goal I support and yet all the progress we make on that front can be wiped out by the hot and prolonged fire seasons that California is now experiencing.

With the 2020 fire season being the most destructive in recorded history, significant work must be taken to reduce severe wildfires.

In truth, no technology removes carbon dioxide from our atmosphere as effectively as trees, which capture it in their roots, branches and leaves. Most of California’s tree species have evolved to withstand wildfires, but when they burn under the intense fuel and weather conditions present today, they release millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and reduce an area’s capacity to pull carbon out of the air.

It will take decades for the forests to regenerate, and in many cases, they may not return. Wildfire can continue to destroy emerging trees before they become large enough to survive fires. When a forest burns and is replaced by brush and shrubs, the area can capture only a small fraction of the carbon absorbed by its previous landscape.

To overcome this destabilizing trend, California must commit sustained funding that protects our forests and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. We can do that through a greater investment in the original green technology – strong and resilient forests.

A group of environmental organizations and business associations support Newsom’s proposal, which emphasizes proactive forest health and wildfire reduction activities like prescribed burning. It is a practical approach that will cost the state far less in the long run and prevent the unnecessary deaths and destruction that too many think is inevitable.

With the 2020 fire season being the most destructive in recorded history, significant work must be taken to reduce severe wildfires. Postponing or promising future funding does not provide any relief in preparation for the 2021 fire season, and we cannot afford to accept the situation as our “new normal.” The governor and legislature know this is a year of reckoning in our fight against megafires, and that makes it a perfect time to adopt new tactics that we know are better at protecting people, property and the land.

Editor’s Note: Chris Paulus is a retired battalion chief with Cal Fire, and lives in Colfax.


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