State and Federal Cooperation Will Expedite Good Forest Health
Periodic wildfires are a part of the natural cycle of forests. The wildfires serve to clear out dead or dying trees, diseased trees or plants, and forest debris, allowing younger, healthier trees and shrubs to grow. Good forestry management practices mimic nature, mechanically clearing out underbrush and other forest debris, setting prescribed burns, and cutting and removing dead, infested or dying trees. Environmental regulations protecting species and their habitats severely restrict the ability of forest landowners and forestry companies to manage their lands in a way that reduce fuel loads leading to wildfires.
Nearly all of California’s 33 million acres of forested land are owned by the federal
On nonfederal land, the state has regulated activities to minimize harm to the environment, principally through permits and mitigation activities for timber cutting, road and structure building, and conversion to agriculture. In addition, the state is responsible for fire suppression on private and state-owned land, as well as in certain local areas.government (19 million acres or 57%), private timber companies (5 million acres) and tens of thousands of private landowners (9 million acres). The State of California owns less than 3% of the forested land. The traditional role of the state and local agencies in managing forests has been limited.
The U.S. Forest Service says that 6 million to 8 million of the 21 million acres it manages in California need immediate restoration. Other forestry experts say that at least 1 million acres need to be treated annually over a sustained period, according to Governor Gavin Newsom’s Wildfires and Climate Change Strike Force.
Millions of acres of forested lands are vulnerable to wildfires due to increased fuel loading and prolonged drought and climate change. The length of the fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierra and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).
Over time, an increasing number of homes and commercial enterprises have been built on the urban fringe interfacing with forestlands and scrublands. Small rural communities exist within forested areas of the state supported by tourism, recreation or the timber industry. Rapid growth in vineyards and wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties spurred corresponding growth in commercial and residential developments, again on the urban fringe bordering forested lands, which already had many vacation and retirement homes.
Structures on the fringe are vulnerable to wildfires and the cost of fighting them increases exponentially. Newer structures built under current building codes require use of noncombustible materials that are fire resistant. However, there are many older structures still in use. Structures unencumbered with loans do not have to carry fire insurance. Also, not everyone keeps defensible space clear of debris around structures to aid in firefighting.
California’s 2017 catastrophic wildfire season generated numerous legislative proposals. Unfortunately, major forestry management improvements in SB 901 (Dodd; D-Napa), signed September 21, 2018 (Chapter 926) by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., weren’t in time to reduce fuel loads that added to the devastation caused by 2018 wildfires.
Key Points of SB 901 Wildfires Bill
• $200 million annually for the next five years: $165 million from Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (Cap and Trade) to CAL FIRE for healthy forest and fire prevention programs and projects that improve forest health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from wildfire; and $35 million from Cap and Trade to CAL FIRE to complete prescribed fire and other fuel reduction projects consistent with the recommendations in California’s Forest Carbon Plan and the operation of year-round prescribed fire crews, research and monitoring for climate change adaptation.
• Five-year extension for several of the state’s biomass facilities and allowance for monthly reporting for some contracts in exchange for additional fuel flexibility.
• Regulatory streamlining for prescribed fire, thinning and fuel reduction projects on federal lands if the state or local agency is conducting projects under federal Good Neighbor Authority.
• Conservation easements purchased with state funds now must be maintained and improved for forest health.
• Creation of a new Small Timberland Owner Program for landowners with fewer than 100 acres—a new timber harvest plan exemption.
• Expansion of the existing Forest Fire Prevention Pilot Program by allowing the construction of up to 600 feet of temporary roads for the purpose of treating and thinning forests.
• Improves the existing Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan and Working Forest Management Plan by clarifying that multiple land owners can work together to manage their lands and submit one plan as long as the total acres in the plan does not exceed a maximum number of acres.
Governor Newsom also took early action and assembled a strike force to lay out a strategy to reduce the number and severity of wildfires, including significant wildfire mitigation measures. CAL FIRE was directed to develop and recommend immediate, medium and long-term actions to help prevent destructive wildfires. CAL FIRE also accelerated 35 priority fuel reduction projects, encompassing 94,000 acres while acknowledging the chasm between this plan and the need.
The Governor’s 2019 budget allocated significant financial resources to mitigate the funding gap in forest management and added 393 more firefighters. The federal government instituted changes that will make it easier to reduce wildfire risk on federal lands, such as splitting fire suppression funds from forest management funds, streamlining certain small-scale forest management projects, improving collaboration with local parties, and further improving Good Neighbor Authority with state governments. The Good Neighbor Authority allows the U.S. Department of Forest Service to enter into agreements with state forestry agencies to do the critical management work to keep forests healthy and productive and promote growth in cooperative forest management.
Impact on Business
Uncontrolled wildfires are costly. Business structures, residences of employees and business owners are at risk. Wildfires disrupt normal commerce for extended periods due to road closures, water damage, poor air quality, erosion (causing landslides), employee displacement and lack of basic amenities. Also, extended business interruptions with ensuing financial losses make it difficult for companies to rebuild their businesses.
Forest landowners suffer loss of long-term investments when their trees burn. It takes many years to grow a replacement crop, especially if owners are unable to clear the burned acres in a timely fashion due to strict forestry rules regarding salvage.
To date, the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County is the most destructive fire in the state’s history. It burned 153,336 acres and destroyed 13,972 homes, 528 commercial structures, and 4,293 other structures. Further south, two other major fires, the Hill and Woolsey Fires, also caused considerable damage in 2018. The Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties burned 96,949 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures and damaged another 364. The Hill Fire in Ventura County burned 4,531 acres, destroyed four structures and damaged two others.
Risk Management Solutions, a firm that predicts the economic impact of disasters, estimates the Camp Fire losses in property damage, automobile damage, interruption to business, and additional living expenses will cost the region between $7.5 billion to $10 billion and the Woolsey Fire losses range from $1.5 billion to $3 billion. The California Department of Insurance said that as of April 2019, insurance claims from the Camp and Woolsey fires in November 2018 already exceeded $12 billion.
The ultimate costs still are not known.
Anticipated Activities in 2020
SB 901 included many improvements to forest management practices. It will take several years to fully implement all the changes. Legislation passed in 2019 to extend the effective time of Sustained Yield Plans, require development of a model defensible space program, and expedite completion and certification of a vegetation treatment program.
It is reasonable to expect additional legislation further easing forestry regulations to allow more salvage operations to clear the burn areas. There probably will be more attempts to expedite permitting requirements for thinning operations, clearing undergrowth and removing diseased trees on private lands to help stop rapid spreading of fires. Although SB 901 allows temporary roads, it did not relieve onerous permit or mapping requirements needed prior to approval of roads. Expect legislation to remedy that issue.
The California Chamber of Commerce supports adequate fire prevention availability for all areas of the state, including the ability for forestland owners and timber companies to clear underbrush and other debris, as well as remove dead or dying trees. The CalChamber supports more inspections and stricter enforcement of defensible space regulations and use of ignition-resistant landscaping where applicable. SB 901 is an improvement in forestry management, but more cooperation between state and federal agencies will expedite good forest health.
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