We can protect Sonoma County
If you've lived in Sonoma County for the past few years, you know how bad—and long—"fire season" has become. You may be one of the very unlucky who lost a home or a business, or worse, a loved one. You may have been forced to evacuate at least once, grabbing pets and filling cars with essentials, to head to a friend's house, a hotel, or a shelter (pre-COVID-19), to wait in worry until it's safe to go home. And no matter who you are, you've had to deal with bad air; power shut-offs; seemingly constant, nerve-jangling alerts; and the thought that even if you get safely through this fire season, what about the next one?
While climate change has brought about the conditions that make wildfires more likely, decades of fire suppression along with the lack of vegetation management have resulted in a buildup of fuel that needs only a spark to start another rampaging wildfire. Vegetation management, first practiced millennia ago by native peoples and advocated by fire scientists today, is key to lowering the fuel load in wildlands.
There are more than half a million acres of forested land in Sonoma County forested land, and two-thirds of that land is privately owned. It will be difficult to do enough vegetation management to make a significant dent in the fuel load that threatens the county year after year. But just because it is difficult does not mean we shouldn’t do it.
We'll never eradicate wildfires in Sonoma County completely; they are part of the ecosystem. But we can ensure they are less widespread and dangerous by doing three things:
• First, we need to tell our local leaders that we expect them to mandate ongoing vegetation management on a large scale. From the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to city managers and councils, our local government should act now to begin aggressive vegetation management throughout the county. Many organizations within the county have worked on this problem for years, and the county government has drafted multiple reports on the issue, but a cohesive, concerted plan is still lacking. As the governing board of Sonoma County, it's up to the Board of Supervisors to budget, plan, coordinate, and manage an effective, ongoing solution.
• Second, anyone who owns land must understand that, according to Chapter 13A of the Sonoma County Code, they have a duty to maintain defensible space and abate hazardous vegetation and combustible material.
• Third, everyone who lives, works, or does business in Sonoma County should understand that they stand to lose a lot when the next wildfire occurs. As a result, we should all be willing to financially support ongoing vegetation management in addition to asking for significant contributions from the federal and California governments, and from PG & E.
Lives have been lost, homes destroyed, businesses ruined. Wildfires in Sonoma County from 2017 through 2020 have cost of billions of dollars.
Sonoma County government has released hundreds of pages of information about past wildfires and ways to avoid future fires. CAL FIRE has developed a strategic plan, a report, and multiple maps that show the county areas most in danger of burning. Many nonprofit agencies are focused on land management, including fire mitigation. All parties want the same thing, but there has been no concerted, sustained and funded action plan to reduce the severe threat of further large wildfires in Sonoma County.
Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE), Northern California native communities, nonprofits like Audubon Canyon Ranch, and hundreds of other organizations and individuals agree: collaborative action is required to manage vegetation, particularly the use of "good fire" to help prevent destructive wildfires from continuing to devastate Sonoma County.
Sonoma County residents want to reduce the destructiveness of future wildfires, but no clear, concerted plan to do so has emerged. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of knowledge on the part of private landowners, who own most of forested land in the county, as to how their land should be maintained, or, in some cases, an unwillingness to do so. Funding is the major issue. It will take billions of dollars to manage our forests, and the effort must be ongoing. Vegetation, once cleared, will grow back. Decades of reliance on fire suppression instead of prevention (and failure to recognize when "good fire" is appropriate) have brought us this crisis. A radical change in thinking and in funding is required.
Image by GIANTPANDA