Surely my phone’s alarm was wrong. How on Earth could this be morning?
The sky was rust-colored, ashy, Blade Runner-esque, the result of northern state wildfires that had drifted for days into the Bay Area. It was Sept. 9, 2020 in south Berkeley.
Six months into the pandemic, the joy of simply walking outside and escaping domestic confinement was suddenly stripped away. No fresh air, no warm sunlight, no distanced, masked interaction with neighbors or friends.
How could we have let this get so bad? If this is what state wildfires are like now, what does the future hold for us?
There was a cascading sense of disbelief flowing through the entire day – the mood of my 18-person house was awash in a low-grade depression. Berkeley’s online classes were draining enough, but this extra layer served as a devastating blow to that week’s mental health.
The next few days followed similar patterns of limited sunlight and abysmal air quality, confining us even further to our dwelling and sinking us deeper into a creepingly familiar melancholy. Thank goodness we weren’t in harm’s way – I could only imagine the horror the residents of Paradise felt two years before.
Throughout this entire experience, I couldn’t help but ponder just what led to these conditions. How could we have let this get so bad? If this is what state wildfires are like now, what does the future hold for us? What will new legislation and policy look like?
Eight of the 10 largest fires in state history have burned in the past decade. The eventual resurgence of these fires year after year after year has become a common, numbing occurrence for Californians.
The 2018 Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in state history, but last year’s August Complex fires in the north were larger and the skies around San Francisco were painted a deep orange. It was only until Nov. 11 that the August Complex, which burned 1,032,648 acres and 935 structures, double the damage of Camp — was considered 100% contained.
This package draws revenue from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund ($125 million) and the General Fund ($411 million).
Even if they are not at the forefront of a fire’s devastation facing property damage, or worse, people are inevitably in proximity to high concentrations of particulate matter or – at the very least – privy to the photos and videos of intense scenes of flame, smoke, and ash.
When pondering the next steps to take to protect Californians in the years to come from wildfires in the years to come, state political leaders have shown promise in taking this threat seriously.
But they leave many crucial fire management questions unanswered.
In April, through bills SB 85 and AB 79, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $536 million wildfire mitigation package. This package draws revenue from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund ($125 million) and the General Fund ($411 million).
Between the 2 bills, there are several beneficial initiatives, like proliferating Fire Prevention Grants to municipalities, greater coordination among local fire departments and the Office of Emergency Services, codifying data collection procedures, and granting the Director of Finance the authorization to redirect certain funds for fire suppression and detection.
One key initiative that has received little attention but is backed by countless veteran firefighters, is the increase in quantity and frequency of prescribed burns.
The governor also expressed a hope that federal disaster prevention grants would help finance these initiatives. These goals include “forest health projects, improvements on defensible space, home hardening against fires, fire prevention grants, and prevention workforce training.”
More importantly, the upcoming state budget offers $1 billion for wildfire prevention, $3.7 billion to “get ahead of the emerging drought”, and another $3.7 billion over 3 years to “make needed climate resiliency investments.” These commitments are crucial in a state that accounts for over half of the country’s agricultural production and the world’s 5th largest economy.
The interconnected nature of keeping human-made climate change at bay, preventing uncontrollable large-scale wildfires, averting further statewide drought, preserving general welfare, and maintaining agricultural production means that these policy proposals necessitate intense logistical coordination. This web of environmental priorities is as delicate as it is crucial.
One key initiative that has received little attention but is backed by countless veteran firefighters, is the increase in quantity and frequency of prescribed burns. The practice itself is subject to intense legal and political scrutiny; controlled burn regimes are challenged through channels of litigation and permitting, the latter of which is regulated by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
Certainly, these efforts face uphill battles against a culture that views fire through a destructive lens rather than as a force for environmental management and sustainable forestry. Researchers estimate that fuel treatments like controlled burns are needed on 20 percent of state lands to prevent future wildfires.
As the regulatory regime stands, CARB facilitates controlled burns by evaluating daily conditions within individual air districts. Annually, 125,000 acres of state lands are treated by prescribed burns, and CARB operates a permitting process for those seeking to execute these burns.
If serious progress is to be made against the perennial threat of wildfires across our state, prescribed burns need to play a pivotal role.
Preventive measures, rather than reactive responses post-fire, are the cornerstones of a successful and healthy state. In all of the previous legislative packages signed by Newsom, none contain explicit mention of controlled burns.
California has a distinct role to play in state and national environmental policy. The legacy of CARB’s creation a full three years prior to the landmark Clean Air Act is a testament to how influential the state’s political evolution is in a nationwide context.
It’s high time that the Legislature and the Newsom administration make serious changes to how wildfires are managed.
Editor’s Note: Eric Furth is a Capitol Weekly intern from UC Berkeley.