Mar 7, 2020
By Dan Silver, Executive Director of the Endangered Habitat League.
A wildfire suppression plan adopted at the end of 2019 by the California Board of Forestry could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars but will do very little to actually reduce fire risk for communities in Sonoma County and throughout the state. Fire safety experts and environmental protection advocates filed suit on January 28 to block the new Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP) from going into effect.
Proposed by CalFire, the state’s fire management agency, the VTP will not provide protection against wind-driven fires. Yet it is wind-driven wildfires that caused the devastating loss of life and property seen in the state in recent years. The Kincade Fire of 2019, which was the largest fire in Sonoma County recorded history, burned almost 78,000 acres and destroyed almost 400 structures. Similarly, the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket Fires of 2017 burned more than 85,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa Counties, destroyed 7,000 structures and killed 25 people.
Across the state, 87 percent of the destruction of homes in 2017 and 2018 was caused by only six fires, all of which were wind-driven. Yet the methods to be used by the VTP would not have prevented those six catastrophic fires.
The VTP calls for removal of native forests, sage scrub and chaparral on a grand scale – on the order of 250,000 acres each year – at enormous financial and ecological cost, including releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. This approach does not stand up to scientific scrutiny and in many locations would actually be counterproductive by promoting the growth of highly flammable weeds. In addition, the VTP does not properly differentiate between what might work for northern forests versus chaparral and sage scrub in Southern California; these habitat types require very different management approaches when it comes to wildfire safety.
CalFire argues the VTP will be used to prevent damage from fires not driven by wind. But non-wind-driven fires typically come under control quickly and are not a major threat to people or property. The environmental review document for the VTP states: “When high-wind conditions drive a large fire, such as when large embers travel long distances in advance of the fire, vegetation treatment would do little, if anything, to stop downwind advance of the fire front.” So why is the state of California planning to spend what may amount to hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the coming years on an ineffectual effort – an effort that would not have prevented Sonoma County’s recent catastrophic fires?
Instead of investing in this flawed approach, CalFire should focus on strategies that actually work and have been recommended by fire scientists.
• funding to support hardening of existing structures, preventing and controlling ignitions though early detection,
• improving early warning and evacuation systems,
• enforcing defensible space around houses, and
• creating strategic fuel breaks to act as access routes and staging areas for firefighters.
Perhaps most logically, our state policymakers should put forward legislation to discourage building new developments in high-risk areas in the first place. Alternatives to VTP do exist:The Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area Plan is an example of a forward-thinking wildfire plan that doesn’t use vegetation clearing and unnecessary habitat destruction to protect against catastrophic fires.
The VTP amounts to nothing more than a taxpayer boondoggle. Governor Newsom, the Board of Forestry and CalFire need to recognize the futility and the grave fiscal irresponsibility of funding this program. Instead, they should work collaboratively with all interested parties to create a comprehensive wildfire risk reduction program that would protect lives and property and save taxpayer money, while protecting fragile native habitats and reducing carbon emissions.
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