Wildfires Should be #1 Priority When it Comes to Climate Change

In an Executive Order dated September 25th, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom directed all agencies of state government to double down on their efforts to address climate change. The Governor, state agencies and the Legislature are spending billions of dollars in efforts to address climate change. Many of these efforts, including eliminating fossil fuels, banning the sale gas powered cars and trucks, and mandating all electric homes, are fine for those that can afford them, but with the highest poverty and homeless rate in the county, these proposals result in a regressive tax on those citizens with low and moderate incomes.

Public policymakers in California should instead focus their efforts and budget dollars on the prevention of catastrophic wildfires. Wildfires are the biggest threat to accelerating damage from climate change. Since 2017, wildfires in the state have burnt over 10 million acres, resulted in over 50 deaths, burned over 30,000 structures, threatened the habitats of protected species, wiped out entire towns, and exposed millions of citizens to the dangers of smoke filled air.

A recent study by researchers at UCLA and the University of Chicago found that the 2020 wildfires alone released nearly 140 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. That is nearly as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the passenger vehicles in California generate in a typical year. Put another way: Between 2003 and 2019, through a variety of measures, California managed to reduce annual carbon emissions by 71 million tons. The 2020 wildfire emissions alone doubled that figure. If you include wildfire emissions from the major wildfire years 2017-2022, it is very likely that all of California’s greenhouse gas emission reductions have been more than wiped out by wildfire emissions.

Given these numbers, one would think the state policymakers would be focusing their climate change efforts and budget allocations on the prevention of wildfires. After all, approximately 30 million homes in California are in low to extreme vulnerability to wildfires. Over three quarters of a million homes are in extreme wildfire areas and these homes have an estimated replacement cost of over $220 billion dollars. Property insurers in California are reducing their risk profiles or fleeing the state leaving homeowners with a restricted market for homeowners and fire insurance.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The state has allocated billions of its budget dollars to fire suppression, firefighting equipment, technology, and more firefighters, but little money has been allocated to forest maintenance and fire prevention. In fact, prevention of catastrophic wildfires does not make the top five budget items of the Governor and the legislature in the last legislative session.

According to recent projections released by the non-profit First Street Foundation, the number of California properties facing severe wildfire risk will grow six-fold over the next 30 years when strictly considering the impact of climate change.

Any way you look at it, the risk of catastrophic wildfires in California is immense. There are still 160 million dead trees in the forests. The urban interface and brush areas throughout the state are overgrown and dried out due to the ongoing drought. The forests and foothills are overgrown with too many trees which, not only exacerbates the drought, but weakens the trees and make them more prone to infection and death by beetle bark insects.

In hindsight, it can be argued that California is making the same mistake that the Federal government made in the early 1900s when, after 4 million acres of the West were burned, the decision was made to fund fire suppression rather than spend money on forest resiliency. Even where money has been allocated to preventing fires and forest resiliency the state has not made huge progress in these areas.

In an extensive article published by Capitol Radio published in June of 2022, the former head of Cal Fire, Richard Wilson bemoaned the states fumbling of key fire prevention work in recent years. For example, the Governor has tasked Cal Fire with preforming 500,000 acres of forest management and fire prevention on lands that are privately owned or controlled by the state. Only a fraction of that work has been done.

The lack of substantial fire prevention and forest resiliency work in the state means that California will continue to be subject to catastrophic wildfires year after year. These fires will likely continue offset all the greenhouse gas emission savings the state will achieve from instituting climate change mandates like eliminating gasoline powered cars and trucks, taking away natural gas stoves and HVAC systems, and going to all electric homes. Instead, the Governor and the Legislature should prioritize and fund fire prevention and forest resiliency efforts as at least a Top 5 budget item.