Funding

Government, Utilities, Citizens

Sonoma County can do a lot to ensure a future that is not blighted by yearly wildfires that cause widespread destruction. But that future must be paid for, and the price is considerable. It's estimated that it will take billions of dollars to do the type of ongoing vegetation management needed to lessen the risk of wildfire in the wildland urban interface.

 

So far, attempts to fund even a small fraction of what is needed have fallen far short. It will take all of us--the citizens who call Sonoma County home, the businesses who thrive here, and our elected officials--to decide that we value our county enough to spend the money needed to keep it safe.

 

Below are just a few examples of efforts to fund fire mitigation efforts, most of which have either failed or only scratched the surface. 

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Former Senator Kamala Harris and Congressperson Jared Huffman introduced the $1B Wildfire Defense Act  in November 2019. It died in committee.

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The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted in November 2019 to put a half-cent sales tax increase on the March 2020 ballot,  the “Sonoma County Wildfire Prevention, Emergency Alert and Response Sales Tax Measure”. It was projected to raise $51 million annually, earmarked for fire services, including vegetation management. The measure, which required a 2/3 majority was narrowly defeated . A similar measure may be introduced for a vote in November 2021.

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The billion-dollar PG&E settlement after the 2017 fires resulted in $149M going to Sonoma County and $95M to the city of Santa Rosa. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors used about one sixth of the money to fill a budget deficit. Regardless of the demands of County citizens to use the rest of the money for fire prevention (vegetation management and hardening around homes and other buildings), only $25M has been set aside for that purpose. On December 15, 2020 the board opted to spend $2M on a study to identify the best choices for clearing brush and building firebreaks, and to review the recommendations in March 2021.

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On September 11, 2020, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved $920,000 for vegetation management services and a potential future fire revenue measure for fiscal year 2020/2021. As of January 2021, the specifics of the plan are not known.

 

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PG & E has at times taken the cheaper path of chopping down healthy large trees instead of more expensive equipment upgrades and maintenance. PG & E plans to increase the rates it charges household customers by an average of 8%, which they claim is necessary "to help the once-bankrupt utility pay for improvements designed to reduce the risks that its outdated equipment will ignite deadly wildfires in its Northern California service territory." 

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There is no getting around the fact that it will cost a lot of money to do what is needed to protect Sonoma County from yearly, increasingly destructive wildfires. It will take the combined will of the people, industry and government to make it happen. Some have tried to make a start at it, but it will take a lot more effort and a lot more money:

“The number is bigger than anything we've got available to spend,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat who in 2018 authored a bill to allow for more controlled burns in the state. “It's in the billions, multi-billions. It's money that's not there right now.”

The state has increased its prescribed burning since Jackson’s bill passed. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, plans to burn 30,000 acres this fiscal year, largely in partnership with private landowners. That’s up from 25,000 last year, and the state hopes to eventually scale up to 50,000. But Jackson pointed out the state can only do so much, as most of its forests are owned by the federal government. 

While Jackson called on the federal government to take more responsibility for prevention work, a U.S. Forest Service fire expert told Stateline that they had been banned from answering questions about the agency’s approach, likely due to the ongoing fire disaster in the state and the upcoming election.[Malcom] North, [ a U.S. Forest Service ecologist] said the agency has set a goal of burning 500,000 acres of federal forests in the Sierra Nevada range, but it’s nowhere close to achieving that.

“Congress is not going to dole out money to make this happen,” he said. “This is just not a priority. We have to come up with some way of finding a revenue stream for fire to be put out on the landscape.”

The federal government’s appetite for funding prescribed fire could soon be put to the test. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, released a plan Thursday that would give federal agencies $600 million annually to light controlled burns on federal, state and private land. It faces a competing bill that seeks to remove vegetation by speeding up forestry projects – an approach opposed by many conservation groups.

But other experts think the current prescribed burn efforts — from the state to federal level — still need to scale up. [Craig] Thomas, [Founder of the Fire Restoration Group], wants the state to burn 1 million acres a year, a figure other experts also have suggested. The current state total of controlled burns each year across all lands is closer to 125,000 acres. Complaints about the expense, he said, are shortsighted.

“It's so insane to me to think about how open the bank account is during these megafire events and how little — pennies in a tin can — that we put into pre-suppression work,” Thomas said.

When COVID-19 blew a hole in California’s spending plans last spring, one of the things state budget-cutters took an axe to was wildfire prevention.

A $100-million pilot project to outfit older homes with fire-resistant materials was dropped. Another $165 million earmarked for community protection and wildland fuel-reduction fell to less than $10 million.

A few months later, the August siege of dry lightning turned 2020 into a record-shattering wildfire year. The state’s emergency firefighting costs are expected to hit $1.3 billion, pushing the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s total spending this fiscal year to more than $3 billion.

The numbers highlight the enormous chasm between what state and federal agencies spend on firefighting and what they spend on reducing California’s wildfire hazard — a persistent gap that critics say ensures a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.

Billions of dollars spent on fighting California wildfires, but little on prevention

 

Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2020