Note: Lana Cohen is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for TMV & KZYX. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Lana’s work here or email [email protected]. Contact Cohen at LCohen@mendovoice.com. TMV maintains editorial control.
LITTLE RIVER, 3/5/2021 — The Board of Forestry, the agency charged with governing Cal Fire, is preparing for another vicious fire season. “We are planning for the worst, hoping for the best,” said Helge Eng, deputy director of resource management for Cal Fire, at Wednesday’s Board of Forestry and Fire Protection meeting. “We are planning for another year that may turn out like the 2020 fire year.”
At the meeting, the Board heard about preparations for the 2021 fire season, fire safe regulations, timber harvest sales, and carbon sequestration.
Within the Natural Resources Agency of California, the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection acts as policy guidance arm of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (usually just referred to as Cal Fire). So while the meeting Wednesday was a convened by the Board, much of the presentation was done by officials from Cal Fire. Charged with developing the state’s forest policy, the Board of Forestry has nine members, all appointed by the governor.
The impending fire season
The state is dry. As Helge Eng, deputy director for resource management at Cal Fire, said during Wednesday’s board meeting, 99% of the state is abnormally dry, 85% is in some sort of drought, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which generally supplies around 30% of the states water needs, is at 61% of normal.
The 2020-2021 season has, unfortunately, shaped up very much “as seasonal predictive models suggested it would,” wrote climate scientist Daniel Swain in his blog, Weather West. “With much drier than average conditions as of mid-February essentially statewide.”
And according to Swain, the next few weeks aren’t looking too promising for precipitation. “The most likely outcome for March — and the rest of spring — are continued drier-than-average conditions across models,” he wrote.
Can Cal Fire meet the demand for crews to fight fires as climate change continues to increase the severity of fire season and COVID-19 puts crews in quarantine? Cal Fire gets much of its manpower from California Conservation Corps crews and prisoner crews from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. As Eng said during Wednesday’s meeting, Cal Fire currently has 37 fire crews available for statewide response, which he noted leaves them somewhat short of full capacity. As is written in the March director’s report to the Board of Forestry, Cal Fire has 14 California Conservation Corps crews staffed of 16 total allocated and 23 prisoner crews of 152 funded, which leaves them with only 37 crews out of 168 funded.
Says the report, “COVID-19 continues to impact the camp program, as there are currently 6 conservation camps on quarantine. These numbers are subject to fluctuation on a daily basis.”
In addition to its own Cal Fire crews, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection plans to continue utilizing National Guard resources in the 2021 season. Cal Fire currently has 10 National Guard crews, but Eng said they are working to add three more.
In addition to adding manpower, Cal Fire is loading up on machinery in anticipation of the upcoming fire season. According to Eng, Cal Fire is getting 12 new Blackhawk helicopters — double engine helicopters with night-flying capabilities.
It’s too soon to tell if Cal Fire can keep up with the increasing severity of fire seasons during a global pandemic.
Fire Safe Building Regulations
Years of forest mismanagement and climate change have turned much of California’s forested land into a tinderbox, ready to go up in flames as soon as the spark — possibly from a dragging chain, dropped power line, or a lightning bolt — is lit.
As California burns summer after summer, Cal Fire is trying to figure out how to ensure more fire-safe buildings.
At the meeting, Edith Hannigan, land use planning program manager for Cal Fire, discussed road rebuilding regulations — regulations that could have huge implications over whether or not emergency vehicles can access homes during a wildfire, whether or not people can escape homes during a fire, and how difficult and affordable it is for homeowners to rebuild in certain areas.
How to regulate road standards in a state with a sweeping range of topography and a population with varying access to funds and other resources is exceedingly complex, as was highlighted by the many questions from the board and public comments about the issue.
The main issues at hand were the substandard road proposal and the aggregate risk proposal.
Here are the definitions of those two proposals that were listed in Hannigan’s presentation.
Substandard Road proposal: once a road is below a certain quality, no subject building construction may occur on it until that road is improved (including otherwise exempt construction);
Aggregate Risk proposal: once a road has reached a cumulative increase in use, no subject building construction may occur on it until that road is improved (including otherwise exempt construction)
Hannigan also discussed setting a minimum road width, so that traffic, including large emergency vehicles, could pass in two directions, setting a floor for road grade, and limiting the length allowed for dead end roads. All of these come with a variety of details and exemptions. The full presentation is available on the Board of Forestry website under section 11-b-1 full.
Multiple residents of rural Santa Cruz Mountains took advantage of the public comment period to voice their concerns over whether or not these restrictions would keep people from building back in their communities after fires or limit building ability to those with more money.
Timber Harvest Plans
Willits Redwood Company won the bid for a contentious logging project, Caspar 500, with an almost $3 million offer. The logging is set to begin in Jackson Demonstration State Forest later this year.
Responding to concerns over the planned logging, which will occur in popular mountain biking areas, Jackson Demonstration staff are developing a 0.7 mile bypass trail. “The trail will improve recreation opportunities and access for demonstration of the planned Jughandle [timber harvest plan],” according to the meeting agenda.
Other news for Jackson includes the hiring of Kristina Wolf as the forest’s new environmental scientist.
Governor Gavin Newsom has promised aggressive action to combat climate change. Part of the plan is to use California’s forests to absorb climate warming carbon dioxide.
Figuring out how much carbon all of California’s forests sequester is a big project, as the forested land differs in vegetation type, density, and more. Cal Fire has been taking inventories of the state’s forests since the 1930s, but they are just recently looking into how much carbon the state’s forests are absorbing and emitting.
According to a presentation given at Wednesday’s meeting by Nadia Tase, the state’s forests are sequestering around 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to around 3 million homes’ energy use for a year or seven coal-fired power plants used for one year. With better monitoring, Cal Fire is hoping to be able to sequester more carbon in the future.
“The science is out there that climate change is happening, and it’s of course being driven by an increase in emissions that are caused by people,” said Tase during an interview after the meeting. “We have this vast resource of plants and trees, and we want to understand how they can help us sequester carbon and fight climate change.”
For more details on the state’s carbon sequestration, you can read the full presentation on the board’s website.
Going forward, Cal Fire plans to work with American Forests, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring healthy forest ecosystems, to figure out how to most efficiently sequester carbon in the state, and look into what management practices best absorb carbon and combat climate change.