In the midst of a global pandemic, California is entering into wildfire season with reduced resources and higher risks, explained Michael Wara, Director of Stanford’s Climate and Energy Program at a recent event hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The panel explored how federal, state and local fire agencies can balance wildfire prevention and response under resource constraints. The discussion also focused on enhancing resilience and ensuring high-priority cost effective programs are funded in the future.
Lower snowpack and reduced rains are increasing risks of active fires because forests are dryer. The combined impacts of climate change, fuel accumulation and increased development in the wildland-urban interface, where human development abuts natural areas, have led to catastrophic wildfires that have cost hundreds of lives, thousands of homes and billions of dollars in recent years, said Chris Field, Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The largest utility in the state has pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for its role in sparking fires. Further, electric utilities are now turning to power shutoffs when fire risks are high, a tactic that impacts thousands of residents. Wara argued there’s no way to eliminate all ignitions so we have to invest in prevention, community resilience, reoptimizing the electric grid and balancing risks.
The panelists gave a follow up discussion on Twitter at #WildfirePrep.
The pandemic is straining financial resources from already underfunded federal and state government agencies to address the magnitude of fire risk and preparedness. Covid-19 has impacted the state’s fire suppression strategy from allowing some fires to burn for ecological reasons to putting them out as soon as they start out of an abundance of caution. If fires get out of hand and require evacuation, emergency centers are likely to be at increased risk for disease transmission. Fire crew availability is also strained as the traditional source of fire crews, inmates at minimum security prisons, is severely depleted, said Field. These are just a few of the challenges the pandemic is adding to for 2020.
With priority on social distancing, landowners may be hesitant to hire and interact with workers to create defensible space around their property to limit fire spread, said Rebecca Miller, a doctoral candidate at Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. In response, CalFire is providing virtual tutorials and assessments to teach people how to create defensible space.
A new bill in the California Legislature would mandate at least 5 feet of defensible space around a property at high risk for fire. Building codes and regulation for new homes also play a role in cutting risk, said Miller. Home hardening and other prevention efforts are critical not only for wildfire preparedness but also for insurance as insurers and pricing are increasingly being affected by risk, said Wara. For every $1 invested in home hardening, adaptation and resilience, it is estimated that $4 to $6 worth of benefit would be gained in reduced risk, said Miller. Upfront investment in home hardening can be high but the pay-off is also extreme when you compare it to the billions lost on recent fires. AB 38, which passed in California last year, created a pathway to make cost-effective home hardening investments. The program would have put $125 million toward the problem but that funding was cut in response to the budget deficit this year.
Biomass harvesting is another strategy for fuel reduction, but much of the fuel is not near existing biomass power plants and the further you have to transport fuel, the less cost effective this approach is, explained Wara. Utilities are increasingly reluctant to sign long-term contracts because of the increased cost of fuel for biomass power generation.
Managed wildfire, where wildfires start on their own but are kept in remote areas by fire professionals, shows the most promise for addressing the magnitude of the treatment need for California’s forests. However, managed wildfire is only legal on federal land as the state’s firefighting agency, CalFire has a mandate to put out fires, explained Miller. In 2020, CalFire is hoping to treat 25,000 acres of land and the U.S. Forest Service is planning to treat 250,000 acres; far less than the 20 million acres (the size of the state of Maryland) in California that need to be treated.
There’s a lot of evidence that wildfire smoke can be very damaging for health, increasing cardiac events, asthma and other risks, explained Mary Prunicki, Senior Research Scientist at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford. In some cases, increases in calls for ambulances for respiratory events happen even within an hour of wildfire smoke exposure. Though smaller fires in remote areas may be helpful to forest ecology, smoke impacts can travel for miles and have impacts on people in cities downwind. A study at Stanford showed that prescribed burns have fewer health impacts than wildfires. Managed fire intervention may prove more positive for human health in the long run with fewer catastrophic wildfires and associated smoke exposure despite short-term threats.
We have to balance treating areas with fire in order to lower fuel build up and promote resilience in the future, while protecting human health and safety, said Kelly Martin, Board Member of the International Association of Wildland Fire and former Chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite National Park. There is likely no way to mechanically treat, thin, harvest or prescribed burn the number of acres that are outside their normal range of variability and pose wildfire risks. We have to use managed wildfire strategically to meet some of the ecological and resiliency objectives.
Prunicki, a physician, emphasized that wearing masks, limiting gathering, and other responsible action by citizens in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic would be especially important for reducing health risks during wildfire season as the less the virus spreads, the less of a threat it is during a disaster.
Ultimately, the researchers emphasized the need for more information. Not enough is known about the costs of catastrophic wildfire in California to know what policies are truly cost effective and more research must be done investigating these important questions going forward, said Wara.