California wildfires have killed at least 31 people and burned nearly 4 million acres so far this year. Among those still burning is the August Complex, which has scorched nearly 1 million acres across seven counties and is just over 50% contained.
Fire suppression, a lack of prescribed burns and climate change are among the top reasons behind the scale and intensity of the fires, according to experts. But a federal bill could help address those issues — or at least serve as a starting point.
“We've got a long road ahead of us this fire season,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a UC system fire advisor based in Humboldt. “It does feel overwhelming to think of the scale of a fire. I think we’re at a tipping point socially, where we're getting to a place in California where we know that we need to be thinking about fire all the time.”
Quinn-Davidson is one of hundreds of experts across the state — Indigenous-, academic- and agency-led — who know how to use prescribed fire effectively. But funding and capacity to do more controlled burns is often a barrier, researchers suggested in a 2019 study of 11 western states.
They also concluded there needs to be “greater leadership direction and incentives to apply prescribed fire.”
“Those small bite-sized solutions we're seeing popping up around the state are actually going to be the solution,” Quinn-Davidson said. “That's going to have to be paired with funding and policy change at the federal and state level.”
To help address the funding issues, Senator Ron Wyden (D – Oregon) and two others introduced a bill in late September that would incentivize the use of controlled burns. It’s important because about 46% of California land is managed by the federal government, according to a 2020 Congressional Research Service report.
“The disastrous infernos in Oregon and across the West have leveled entire communities to ash,” Wyden said in a release. “If this isn't a wakeup call for Congress to act on climate and invest more in smarter, science-based fire management, I don't know what is.”
The bill would do three things: It would appropriate $300 million for the Forest Service and the Department of Interior to light controlled burns on federal, state and private land; it provides $10 million for burns across jurisdictions that could burn at a high-severity; and it creates an incentive program that would give $100,000 to any federal agency, state or county that’s conducting burns bigger than 50,000 acres.
“Good forest science is good climate science,” Wyden said. “Burning more when it's safe in the off-seasons will save us a lot later by preventing catastrophe in the summer and fall.”
For the legislation to be a success, a program would need to be created to train people how to use fire on the landscape. This could include underrepresented employees like women, Indigenous people and formerly incarcerated people.
Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Trinity County, said he is figuring out ways to see more prescribed burns on the land, especially in the wildland urban interface. He says a collaborative cross-jurisdiction — city, county, state, federal and private land — approach is needed in California.
“We have this bigger public mandate that it's an obvious tool that we all ought to be using,” he said. “We're not using it at the scale we should.”
Alongside potential funding issues and the extreme costs of forest management, he says the bill has some hurdles.
“The bill will stall if we don't deal with some of the issues that it tries to grapple with,” he said. “Sort of how we deal with liability and reducing risks to the people that are going to be out there lighting the fires.”
There is also a concern over air quality when it comes to larger prescribed burns. The bill says air agencies will follow current laws and regulations and “give states more flexibility in winter months to conduct controlled burns that reduce catastrophic smoke events in the summer.”
It could also exempt some projects from air quality regulations that burn 1,000 acres per day.
But the $300 million may not actually treat as much as it sounds when considering the amount of overgrowth in western forests, says Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert at Chico State University. He’s a huge proponent of scaling up Indigenous cultural burns (Read more about California’s history of racist fire suppression efforts).
“The $300 million sounds like a huge amount of money, but let’s say an average prescribed burn costs $2,500 per acre to treat — this may only lead to 100,000 acres being treated,” he explained. “Just think of the scale of the fires that are happening.”
The group Wildfire Today points out that while this bill is a huge step in the right direction, there are some issues around relying on prescribed burns to prevent the destructive nature of wildfire on the built environment. In a recent article, the group said that wildfires often happen during extreme conditions and launch embers into more urban places and areas that haven’t burned in a long time.
Since many homes are lost during wildfires because of the condition of the home and the immediate area around it, the group suggests the bill should include things like homeowner grants for people who live in high-risk areas.
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