IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2017, I WAS watching the television coverage of Hurricane Maria coming out of Puerto Rico when I heard the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggest that FEMA was already severely strained from the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. His observation was followed shortly by the president’s tweet—and I’m paraphrasing here, not intending to create “alternative facts”—that the people of Puerto Rico (American citizens) needed to look to their own resources and not rely on federal aid to pull them out of the disaster. With the fall wildfire season fast approaching—actually, it’s year-round now—I wondered, “Will traditional FEMA funding streams through the USDA’s Emergency Watershed Program (EWP) be available when (not if) we experience wildfires in California?”
Since the East Bay (Oakland) Firestorm in 1991, I’ve played key roles in the emergency soil stabilization efforts for more than 60 wildfires, including the recent Lilac Fire in Fallbrook, CA (December 2017). My efforts on emergency response plans have focused on leadership, financial assistance, and technical guidance in the form of post-fire hazard assessment, design of mitigation strategies, and oversight of extensive mitigation implementation efforts before the onset of winter rains.
So it was in early October 2017—before the onslaught of the historic fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties; the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties; the Skirball and Rye Fires in Los Angeles County; and wildfires in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties—that I had lunch with Cid Tesoro, former head of the San Diego County Department of Public Works Watershed Protection Program. I had worked with Cid developing, funding, and implementing the post-fire hazard assessments and remediation actions following the 2003 (Cedar) fire, 2007 (Witch Creek) fire, and numerous smaller incidents over the last 15 years until his recent retirement from the county. I felt comfortable asking Cid this question:
“If we had not had access to FEMA money following the wildfires here in San Diego, how would the county have funded the remediation effort to prevent a secondary disaster from erosion, flooding, and debris flows?”
His answer was simple: San Diego County would have proceeded to protect public health and safety first and explored other ways to pay for the work secondarily . . . which was kind of my understanding of what it did in 2003 following the Cedar Fire. The county fronted the money for the hazard assessment and remediation activities back in 2003, accounted for all expenditures, and received reimbursement from FEMA only on the day we began work on the 2007 Witch Creek Fire, about 4 years later. I’ve observed how numerous municipalities, counties, and other agencies have responded to post-fire issues over the past three decades, and I have always been impressed, awed, and grateful for the immediate response from San Diego County, where I live, and where the county’s motto is “The noblest motive is the public good.”
In early December 2017, I was again asked—even before the fire was 100% contained—to help develop a hazard assessment and remediation plan for the Lilac Fire in northern San Diego County. As I stood above the ruins of the Rancho Monserate Country Club, I seriously wondered where the money might come from to respond to this disaster. Who would pay for the cleanout of drainage structures? The temporary sediment controls to divert or contain ash and debris? The hydraulic mulches to prevent soil erosion from winter rains, and the soil stabilizers to stop mobilization of the ash by wind?
The next day, as I was looking down from the sheriff’s helicopter above the San Luis Rey River Valley, which had been burned to white ash, it occurred to me that wildfires, like glaciers (but on a far shorter time frame), are perhaps great environmental “do-overs”: an opportunity, and indeed an obligation, to correct some of the errors we’ve made in terms of how mankind develops and occupies space on our planet.
As we get older, the do-overs that we used to “call” as children become a little more complicated and can have lingering and sometimes beneficial and unimagined effects. Examples include the proverbial “get out of jail free” card, a mulligan in golf, a remarriage after divorce, or the baptism scene from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?:
Delmar O’Donnell: Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward. The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Ulysses Everett McGill: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?
Delmar O’Donnell: Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.
Many scientists consider that wildfires are the result of drought conditions due in part to global warming, caused by the introduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere from anthropogenic sources. Would it surprise you to learn that a National Science Foundation study has suggested that wildfires in the contiguous United States and Alaska produce 290 million metric tons of CO2 annually? Research has shown that in 2007, the October 19–26 wildfires in California produced 7.9 million metric tons of CO2—equivalent to 25% of the average monthly emissions from all fossil fuel burning in the entire state. Exacerbating the CO2 issue is the fact that carbon-sequestering vegetation is typically destroyed to some degree during a wildfire and that the underlying soil—which can itself sequester 20 times the amount of carbon as emergent vegetation—can lose a great deal of its carbon-sequestering microbiology during intense burns.
It seems to me that from an erosion control, flooding, and debris flow perspective, reinvigorating soil and reestablishing vegetation after the incidence of wildfire should be one of our first priorities; by doing these things, we also compensate for the direct carbon conversion of burned plants to GHGs. Given enough time, nature will heal the scars of wildfire, but I believe that we have the ability to give it a nudge through comprehensive post-fire watershed analysis and restoration activities.
Where should the money come from to facilitate an on-the-ground, post-fire, revegetation, soil rejuvenation, carbon-sequestering program? Well . . . California has a Cap-And-Trade Program whose goal is to reduce GHG emissions. Cap-and-Trade, which began in 2013, essentially requires industries to pay to pollute, acquiring permits for each ton of carbon that they release into the atmosphere. The permits are sold and traded at quarterly auctions. The California Cap-and-Trade Program has produced more than $2 billion in revenue since its implementation. In November 2017 alone, the quarterly auction of carbon-offset credits produced $862,813,902.74 for the state of California.
This money is supposed to be spent on programs that contribute to California reducing its carbon footprint to 1990 levels by the year 2020. For 2017, the legislature has proposed the following allocations for $1.5 billion from the Cap-and-Trade revenues:
- $895 million for programs to replace gas- and diesel-burning equipment
- $225 million for fire prevention and response
- $165 million to agriculture
- $61 million for urban forestry, healthy forests, and wetlands restoration
- $44 million for programs to promote energy efficiency
- $40 million to promote the state’s recycling infrastructure
- $11 million for energy research at the University of California
So how about reserving a little of the Cap-and-Trade revenue for wildfire restoration work? It appears to me that future federal funding for disaster remediation—hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, etc.—will become increasingly limited for a lot of reasons, political as well as environmental. In lieu of seeking federal funds for addressing the impacts of a growing number of wildfires in the West, perhaps all affected states should begin to look to their own resources to prevent the secondary disasters following wildfires and to set the table for long-term watershed recovery. In California, it seems to me that funds from the Cap-and-Trade Program should be dedicated to restoration and reinvigoration of watersheds affected by wildfires: a great opportunity for an environmental do-over of sorts. However, convincing the purse-string holders to allocate money for this purpose may not be easy:
Blind Seer: You seek a great fortune, you who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first . . . first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see thangs, wonderful to tell . . . And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow the road, even unto your salvation.
We proceed onward.