LITTLE RIVER, 4/9/21 — The 2021 fire season is already shaping up to be a bad one and Cal Fire is not as prepared as they would like to be on most fronts. “I’m concerned,” said Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire, at the April 7 Board of Forestry meeting. “That’s my one word for this season, concerned.”
On April 7, the Board of Forestry, the agency charged with governing Cal Fire, held their monthly meeting, where they largely discussed wildfire — preparations for the current season, regulations to create more fire safe communities in the future, and an update to the statewide fire hazard severity maps, among other things.
It’s about that time of year — when everything else gets overshadowed by the heat, smoke, and fear that comes with wildfire. And due to COVID, Cal Fire doesn’t have all the resources its used to, which is troubling in a year when over 99% of the state is experiencing some level of drought, according to information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) drought monitor
“The operational concerns that I have are really in boots on the ground,” said Porter. “We’re fairly well staffed — on the wildland side of the department — at the engine company level, dozers are pretty good. We’re really good on aircraft and feeling better all the time on our aircraft program — but our hand crew capacity is really dismal.”
In the past, Cal Fire has had 190 prison crews available for the season. This year they have less than 70, according to Porter. Out of “So we’re somewhere between 30% to 40% capacity currently with the inmate program,” said Porter. “Not good.”
The prisoner crews, which Cal Fire usually refers to as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) crews, have been slashed during COVID, as outbreaks have significantly shrunk training programs. “We’re well over 1000 [firefighters] short now,” said Porter. “That is the biggest vulnerability and as far as me, Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire, I’m concerned.”
However, some of this gap in firefighter staffing may be filled with some $80 million that Governor Gavin Newsom has allocated to Cal Fire using emergency funds.
Alisha Herring, a communications representative for Cal Fire, said that the department will likely be able to make up for some of the shortages with the emergency money doled out by Newsom, which will allow them to start hiring and training seasonal firefighters. “Normally we may not bring on seasonal firefighters this early in the season,” said Herring over the phone. “But because of this emergency money we can start staffing ahead of the season.”
Mapping the state’s fire risk
The state’s current fire hazard maps Cal Fire were developed between 2007 and 2010. Since then, a lot has changed — the climate is substantially different than it was a decade ago and development has altered landscapes. Right now the maps are being updated to better reflect the current situation in California. On Wednesday, Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for Cal Fire, and David Sapsis, head of risk mapping for Cal Fire gave a presentation to the Board of Forestry on how the map updates are coming along.
“Over the past couple of years we’ve been building the science behind the model,” said Berlant. Their goal is to be able to start adopting the maps, and incorporating the information from them into regulations by the summer.
Hazard severity maps might sound kind of boring, but their findings will likely have huge implications on building, development, and insurance, as areas that are zoned as being the most at risk of burning are subject to more stringent building regulations than other locations.
The maps, which are required by law, rank the hazard severity of different areas based on fuel, slope, and wind and fire weather. These maps are big-picture, they’re not looking at things that can be altered by defensible space, or other small alterations. “The maps are looking at a long term, 30 to 50 year horizon,” said Berlant.
So they’re not only looking at things like vegetation, but also how vegetation is likely to change.
The fire hazard severity maps categorize areas into three rankings — moderate, high, and very high fire hazard severity and separates the state into state responsibility areas and local responsibility areas
“The number one reason we assign a hazard scoring is not only for the public to know what’s my hazard for where I live, but in 2008 we adopted some of the most stringent, at the time, building standards for new construction in areas where wildfires are prevalent, specifically in the wildland urban interface.”
The hazard severity scoring defines which buildings need to be built to certain standards. In state responsibility areas, all areas listed as moderate, high or very high, and all local responsibility areas listed as having a fire high fire hazard severity have to be built to California chapter 7A wildland urban interface building codes, which define what materials can be used for construction, what designs are appropriate, and whether or not certain alterations can be made, among other things.
The maps also provide information to home insurance companies, who can use the map information to gain a better understanding of how likely homes they insure are to burn.
In other news the governor’s office announced nearly half a billion dollars towards wildfire prevention, read the press release below:
Governor Newsom, Legislative Leaders Announce Early Budget Action for Wildfire Prevention
SACRAMENTO– Governor Gavin Newsom, Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) today announced a $536 million funding plan to help improve California’s resilience to wildfires. They released the following statement:
“With California facing another extremely dry year, it is critical that we get a head start on reducing our fire risk. We are doing that by investing more than half a billion dollars on projects and programs that provide improved fire prevention for all parts of California.
“Key parts of the Administration’s initial proposal have been supplemented by legislative ideas that will pay dividends over the years, such as greater investments in forest health projects, improvements on defensible space, home hardening against fires, fire prevention grants, and prevention workforce training. The plan includes public and private lands vegetation management, community-focused efforts for prevention and resilience and economic stimulus for the forestry economy.
“Because we know that California’s fires are not limited to forested lands, we have built in attention to all kinds of vulnerable terrain and vegetation, with incentives for prevention that protects larger numbers of residents.
“The $536 million funding packaging includes $125 million from Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds and $411 million from the General Fund. We also hope to draw federal disaster prevention grants to match money spent on home hardening.
“We are pleased to have reached an agreement to get California quickly on the road to strong wildfire prevention, but we know more work is needed. This plan could not have been developed without the hard work of Assemblymembers Richard Bloom and Phil Ting, and Senators Bob Wieckowski, Susan Rubio, and Mike McGuire, among others. We anticipate additional benefits from discussions on the 2021-2022 budget.”
Details on this funding package can be found in SB 85 and AB 79.