‘New Normal’ of California Wildfires: Reduced Timber Harvests Threaten Sierra Nevada Forests

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9/28/18 California’s historic wildfires in 2018 may be a sign of more devastating summers ahead.  The state’s wildfire season is starting earlier and lasting longer, by about 2 ½ months since in the 1970s. Fifteen of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred since the year 2000. This increased fire occurrence is also costing Californians more in loss of life and property, health care for air quality-related illness, insurance rate increases, and impacts on forest-based businesses. Fire suppression and response costs are also escalating rapidly, costing the state $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2018 alone. Governor Brown recently declared that over the next decade “we’re going to have more fire, more destructive fire, and more billions that will have to be spent on it; all that is the new normal that we will have to face.”

This “new normal” is a result of forest management practices over the last 50 years that have seen significant decreases in timber harvest and a focus on fire suppression, counter to the ecology of the Sierra Nevada forests, which is adapted to annual fires that maintain fuel levels. An increased amount of fuels, coupled with drought and bark beetle infestation, have created the potential for greater frequency and severity of wildfires. Increased temperatures and climate change will continue to dry out and exacerbate forest conditions. The greater Sacramento region and entire state will continue to face increasing risk of wildfire unless dramatic steps are taken to proactively address forest health and reduce fire risk. Those actions require significant amounts of money and manpower.

Last year, the State appropriated $200 million for Forest Health grants, which was more than expected, but not nearly enough to address the problem. A collaboration of forest interests in the region known as the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative was successful in securing nearly a quarter of this funding for a range of fuel reduction and related forest management activities. This year, Gov. Brown formed the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Legislative Conference Committee, which crafted and won approval for SB 901, a bill that continues the $200 million funding level for the next five years. If signed into law, the Sacramento region is poised to secure continued funding to not only reduce the potential for catastrophic fire events, but also avoid regionwide impacts on air quality, water supply, recreation, timber harvest, and habitat and ecology.

Additional information on Cal Fire’s Forest Health Grants can be found on their website.