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California Needs Bipartisan Action to End Wildfire Cycles

The state has been making steps towards combating climate change in hopes to quell the cyclical devastation of wildfires, but to continue progress California is going to need statewide, bipartisan support.

(TNS) — Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped inside the hollow base of a majestic redwood tree in the Santa Cruz Mountains last month and marveled at the giant’s ability to withstand a brutal wildfire that ravaged the 118-year-old state park around him.

“How the hell do these things make it?” Newsom asked a park ranger.

The answer is that those trees evolved to endure a good burn. Fire is endemic to California. But the threat is changing now, thanks to the world’s warming climate and more than a century of poor forest management, among other reasons.

Newsom saw as much that day in August when he toured the extensive fire damage at Big Basin Redwoods, California’s oldest state park. It wasn’t the first time he’d found himself in such a situation: Shortly after he was elected governor in 2018, Newsom and President Donald Trump walked through the burned remains of Paradise, the Butte County town decimated by the historic Camp Fire. 

About two weeks after Newsom’s trip to Big Basin, he met with Trump again. By then the state’s already-severe fire 2020 season had intensified even more. Newsom urged the president to appreciate how “the plumbing of the world” had changed and that “climate change is real.”

While the president has not fully embraced that reality, Newsom has since tried to press fast forward on California’s climate change actions, betting they will help ease the endlessly growing threat of wildfires in the state.

He and other state officials have no time to waste.

California is burning more than ever, with a record 3.7 million acres blackened across the state so far and weeks more of potentially dangerous weather in store. The fiery crisis could quickly become a political one too, as state leaders scramble to contain a worsening problem with myriad solutions, none of them easy to enact.

And it’s not just a climate issue: To most effectively reduce the mounting risk of catastrophic wildfires, the state will need to grapple with its overgrown forests and misguided development patterns too.

“We have not done enough,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who has taken a leading role in wildfire legislation in recent years as his district burned.

Politicians and policy experts broadly agree, though disagreement persists about the best next steps. On the climate front, Newsom’s most ambitious measure was a recent executive order prohibiting the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.

He has also called for a ban on new permits for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of extracting oil and gas from the ground. Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and two other lawmakers have said they will introduce such a bill this year.

Much more is needed to prevent catastrophic fires, including more aggressive measures to thin overgrown forests through measures such as controlled burns. California is trying to achieve that through a new partnership with the federal government that aims to reduce fire risks across 1 million acres of forest annually.

But it will take years to achieve that goal, and a lot of reliable funding to maintain the endeavor in perpetuity. The state must also rethink its longstanding strategy of suppressing all fires, even nonthreatening ones that can help prevent places from burning more intensely later, said Henry McCann, a research associate at the Public Policy Institute of California. Fireproofing homes in the riskiest regions is another urgent need, he said.

“There’s no slam dunk or silver bullet solution,” McCann said. “It’s an all-of-the-above type moment.”

Environmentalists have advocated for even stronger steps to protect the climate, and therefore lessen the risk of ruinous fires. Their ideas include moving up the state’s 2045 deadline to get all of its electricity from carbon-free sources and managing a responsible shift away from oil and gas production.

“We’ve got to stop being a drug dealer, essentially,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California.

Abandoning fossil fuel production would be a tough pill to swallow in Kern County, where oil and gas remains a pillar of the economy. Petroleum is so deeply woven into the culture of Bakersfield that the mascots of the city’s oldest high school, opened in 1893, are drillers.

Newsom’s environmental policies have already faced strong opposition from conservatives including Republican state Senate Leader Shannon Grove, who represents Bakersfield.

“Republicans believe we need to have responsible forest management, not import oil from countries with appalling human rights violations that tear down rainforests and ignore environmental regulations,” Grove said in a statement to The Chronicle. “Californians deserve a governor with real solutions for issues that affect our families, not one who likes to grab headlines.”

Newsom has been cognizant of the difficulties in making making such a seismic economic shift.

“None of us are naive in the state of California, as a fossil fuel production state, that we need to focus on a just transition ... to make sure those that are impacted by this transition are included in the new economic opportunities,” Newsom said.

Part of the solution for places such as Kern County could be attracting a lot of electric vehicle manufacturing and renewable energy business to the area, said Phillips of the Sierra Club.

“The culture of oil is so embedded in the politics of the place that getting leadership there to think more broadly about how do you develop a diverse, healthy economy has been a real struggle,” Phillips said.

Infrastructure investments will be essential as California tries to move toward an entirely carbon-free electric grid, experts say.

The state has already struggled in that area, as indicated partly by rolling blackouts in August caused by a power supply shortage during a heat wave. State energy leaders said renewable power was not inherently to blame but they also admitted that regulators may need to rethink rules about electricity supplies and reserves. Others have called for more spending on batteries to store solar power for use when the sun does not shine.

“What we really need to be doing is building new stuff,” said Leah Stokes, a UC Santa Barbara professor with expertise in climate and energy policy. “We have to continue to create very strong incentives to build new, renewable energy as fast as possible.”

Paying for some of the needed efforts to lessen California’s wildfire burden will be a major challenge for state lawmakers in the years ahead. Dodd, the Napa state senator, said he might now be willing to support using revenues from the cap-and-trade program, through which large emitters can buy permits to release greenhouse gases.

“We don’t have an unlimited checkbook,” Dodd said. “What we’ve got to do is prioritize the existing money that we already have.”

That idea has been advocated before by Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa (Orange County). Moorlach said the state needs to do more to reduce emissions from wildfires — which is a tricky area to address. California’s history of fire means that some amount of greenhouse gases from wildland blazes is natural.

But there’s no denying that wildfires do release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Human decisions to allow too much vegetation to build up and burn fossil fuels are fanning the flames.

This year as of Sept. 24, fires had emitted an estimated 102.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the California Air Resources Board. The fire emissions tally is larger than the equivalent metrics for fossil fuel pollutants from any sector except transportation in 2017, the most recent year available.

“If we’re serious about climate change, then neglecting addressing wildfires is disingenuous,” Moorlach said.

State lawmakers have also looked at ways to help homeowners immediately cope with the greater risk of major wildfires, though progress has been modest.

State Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, introduced what he called a “big, audacious bill” in 2018 that originally intended to make homes in highest-risk areas more resistant to fire — and set up a $1 billion fund to help homeowners pay for retrofits.

The bill passed, but in a watered-down version that did not go as far as Wood wanted. He said it “didn’t feel like Californians were ready for this,” a situation he called “really, really disappointing, because here we are again facing these fires.”

“I guess the challenge we really face here is that we have these fires in the fall, and then we come back in January and it’s raining and there’s something else to work on,” Wood said.

California lawmakers need to recognize that “housing policy is climate change policy, or should be,” said state Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland. Smarter laws about where and how homes are built — allowing for denser construction in urban cores, improving public transit — can help the environment, she said.

Wildfire is a familiar problem to Wicks, who grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Placer County. Her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service for more than four decades and even though he retired years ago, he still returns regularly to help fight fires, she said.

Wicks was conscious of wildfire threats throughout her childhood. But what’s happening in California now is orders of magnitude worse, she said.

She recalled walking her young daughter to school, just a few blocks away from their home, the day Bay Area skies turned an Armageddon orange because they were blanketed with so much smoke. Her daughter wanted to know where the sun went.

“How do I explain to my 3-year-old that we basically destroyed the planet?” Wicks said.

Like many parents across California, she’s worried about what the environment will look like when their children grow up, in the absence of more decisive steps to address wildfires and climate change.

“Are they going to be living in an environment that allows them to go out and take a hike, or are they going to grow up in a place where we have two or three months of toxic fumes that we’re all dealing with every single year?” Wicks said.

Even as the fires have only worsened over time, and despite California’s failure to solve other persistent policy problems, Wicks said she’s not deterred. She has to keep pushing for bold policy changes, she said — she has no other choice.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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