At this time last year, we here in southern California had no inkling that the Thomas Fire—until recently the state’s largest, ultimately burning its way through more than 280,000 acres—was just around the corner. It started in early December 2017, burned for more than a month, destroyed more than a thousand structures as well as agricultural lands and habitat, caused more than $2 billion in damage, and finally led to massive landslides that killed more than 20 people.
We might not have seen the fire coming, but we probably should have. As I mentioned in the last issue, and as fire officials have been warning, the drought and the tremendous reserves of dried fuel—in part a legacy of the policy of extinguishing all fires and not letting some of the deadwood burn—have led to ideal wildfire conditions.
The question now is what we can do to prepare, and particularly what we should do to stabilize the already burned and damaged areas that are most vulnerable. As experts point out, we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to stabilize every bit of ground. Realistically, the focus should be on what some refer to as the “urban-wildland interface” (or perhaps more accurately, the wildland-urban interface—nature was here first). As we move into the winter season, it’s a good time to revisit the question of prevention and preparation—and, inevitably, how to pay for it.
In September, California’s governor passed a bill increasing state spending on fire prevention by $1 billion over the next five years. This is a good investment—although it’s a large amount of money, it’s less than half of the cost of the Thomas Fire alone, and the strategy is a welcome change from our past chasing-after-the-fire policies in which most of the budget has gone to putting out blazes once they’re started.
In addition, private investors are working in the same direction, through vehicles like Forest Resilience Bonds. Under this type of public-private partnership, a project raises private capital—potentially many millions of dollars—to restore high-risk areas, and investors are paid back over time by those downstream, such as water utilities and state agencies that benefit from their efforts. The work is done in conjunction with, and monitored by, the US Forest Service. A pilot project in the Tahoe National Forest was recently announced.
There are other options as well. Mike Harding, who has extensive experience dealing with the aftermath of wildfires, wrote about many of these issues and the challenges of funding the work in our March/April 2018 issue. He proposed a sort of cap-and-trade program similar to that already in place for greenhouse gas emissions. The funds, he wrote, “should be dedicated to restoration and reinvigoration of watersheds affected by wildfires: a great opportunity for an environmental do-over of sorts.”
What sorts of funding mechanisms are in place for prevention and recovery efforts in your area—whether the major threat is wildfire, tornado, coastal flooding, or some other combination of natural phenomena? Leave a comment below.