Pandemic affects work to prevent severe wildfires

Issue Date: April 22, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

For California, COVID-19 represents a new emergency on top of a chronic one—wildfires.

In the wake of blazes such as those that devastated Sonoma, Napa and Ventura counties in 2017 and the Butte County town of Paradise in 2018, Gov. Gavin Newsom fast-tracked fire-prevention work and the state enacted Senate Bill 901, which authorizes $1 billion over five years to boost wildfire-prevention efforts.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, the question becomes how to take on two emergencies simultaneously.

One effect can already be seen in the reduction of prescribed burns. The U.S. Forest Service suspended such burns on land it oversees last month, citing concerns about smoke affecting those at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, and reducing exposure for Forest Service employees.

"Safety of the public and our wildland fire responders is priority No. 1," Forest Service spokesman Jonathan Groveman said. "While COVID-19 circumstances are rapidly evolving, wildland firefighting agencies are actively assessing potential risks and developing plans to mitigate those risks as the COVID-19 response continues."

Robert Spiegel, a California Farm Bureau Federation policy advocate, said prescribed burns are "one tool in the toolbox" and that CFBF supports a variety of means to reduce fuel loads, including mechanical vegetation clearing, timber operations, grazing and herbicide applications.

"There are still many other options that exist, and it's just going to be up to the local governments, state grants and regulatory entities involved to make a decision that we need to use other means to make sure that the communities and Californians are safe from potential wildfire," Spiegel said.

At CalFire, Deputy Chief Scott McLean said all fuel-reduction and forest-resiliency projects "are still on the table."

"A lot of these projects are handled through mechanical fuel-reduction means," McLean said. "By that, I mean physical labor, whether it be chipping, whether it be using chainsaws and things of that nature, where prescribed fire does not come into play."

In March 2019, Newsom directed CalFire to work on 35 high-priority fuels-reduction projects around the state and fast-tracked the projects through the environmental-review process. All but one of these projects has been completed, according to the governor's office.

McLean noted that some 240,000 acres of California land fell victim to wildfire in 2019, down from 1.9 million in 2018. As to how 2020 will shape up, he said, "it's really hard to gauge right now with the moderate weather pattern that's continuing to come through, and hopefully will continue to do so in April."

The pandemic has already led to adjustments in training. McLean said CalFire has in the past conducted returning-firefighter academies with 25 to 30 students each.

"We can't do that anymore for physical distancing. We have modified our classes to be much smaller, to have more of them," he said, adding that some training also has moved online.

"Keep in mind that there's a lot of certifications that come into play," McLean said, including ensuring firefighters "have the ability to do their jobs, the knowledge to do their jobs, to make sure they are current with the procedures and policies of the department."

If a large fire breaks out during the pandemic, fire departments will be faced with battling the blaze while trying to keep their people healthy.

Frost Pauli, a Mendocino County rancher and volunteer firefighter, described a fire base camp as "a makeshift town," with firefighters working in close quarters, which can lead them to develop a cold Pauli called "camp crud."

"It's sort of inevitable when you have that many people living in close proximity, eating at the same tables, sleeping in the same trailers, using the same facilities for weeks," Pauli said, noting that research is ongoing into how to balance firefighting and health.

McLean said base camps, if needed, will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, with more safety officers assigned and vendors held accountable for cleanliness.

"Every situation is going to be different on each fire or each incident," he said. "It will dictate to us what we will need to do."

Another worry is what the pandemic will do to the state budget, including funds allocated to wildfire prevention and control. Newsom's proposed 2020-21 budget, released in January, originally included a number of wildfire-prevention items:

  • $200 million for forest health and fuel breaks.
  • $100 million for home hardening and defensible space.
  • $500 million in proposed bond funding for community infrastructure hardening.
  • $80 million in LiDAR and imaging to support predictive wildfire analytics and ecological monitoring.
  • $250 million for upper watershed health to mitigate catastrophic fires.
  • $1 billion for a climate catalyst fund that includes sustainable forestry and woody biomass utilization to encourage private sector engagement in forest health and wildfire resilience.
  • $120 million in additional funding and 677 additional staff positions to support fire suppression equipment and efforts.

But that was before the pandemic shut down large parts of the state's economy—and with it the flow of revenue into the state treasury. The budget is expected to be revised downward significantly when the annual May revise comes out.

Spiegel said there is the possibility of a "workload budget," which maintains status quo and does not fund new projects or requests. He said he would like to see the state keep the commitments made in SB 901.

"If SB 901 funding is delayed, critical projects that could prevent or mitigate the next major wildfire will be delayed as well, putting communities, residents and state resources in jeopardy," Spiegel said. "Now, I would say, is not the time for California to turn away from it."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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