Californians are gearing up for what could be another dangerous wildfire season, particularly in light of significant drought conditions. Grasses, shrubs, and forests are drying out early due to a lack of precipitation, providing potential fuel for wildfires. Red flag warnings—when high winds and low humidity increase fire risk—have already been issued this year across broad swaths of the state. Small spring wildfires have put firefighters and communities on edge.
Is the state prepared for another bad wildfire season? And how much progress has been made to improve the resilience of vulnerable communities and headwater forests?
California’s wildfire problem is multi-faceted and complex, and is expected to accelerate in a warming climate. The governor and legislature have pushed for reforms to improve the state’s resilience to wildfire. High-priority reforms include:
- Continued state funding to address the state’s wildfire challenges: Last month, Governor Newsom signed a wildfire spending package of $536 million to be distributed across a portfolio of programs. Funding is directed to large-scale headwater forest stewardship projects (and infrastructure to make use of removed wood), wildfire fuel breaks in wildland-urban interface areas, home hardening techniques to reduce fire risk (such as non-flammable roofing), and forest monitoring. Importantly, the spending bill amends the 2020‒21 budget act, which allows funds to be spent right away in advance of peak wildfire season. Governor Newsom recently proposed an additional $708 million in wildfire funding in the state budget. Stable and consistent state funding is critical for improving the resilience of California’s fire-prone communities and headwater forests.
- New statewide wildfire and forest health strategy: In January, the Forest Management Task Force—the state’s inter-agency partnership on wildfire and forest health issues—published the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan. The plan provides a road map for priority actions needed to bring headwater forests back to health and reduce the risk of extreme wildfire. It also serves as the first joint plan between the state and the US Forest Service, building on a recent collaborative agreement to increase the pace and scale of vegetation thinning work. This plan will be instrumental in guiding policymakers on funding priorities and needs over the next decade.
- Progress on wildfire insurance issues: Recent massive wildfires roiled the fire insurance landscape, causing enormous losses for the insurance industry and property owners alike. Many people in wildfire-affected areas have lost coverage or have seen major increases in their premiums. Last fall, state insurance commissioner Ricardo Lara extended restrictions on dropping policies in wildfire-affected areas. Since then, the commissioner has kicked off a collaborative partnership of state agencies in pursuit of longer-term solutions, including developing statewide standards for home and community hardening. This is an important step for increasing access to affordable insurance.
Over the past few years, wildfires have caused huge damage to communities and infrastructure, from the mountainous headwater forests to coastal metropolitan areas. State leadership is scrambling to address these challenges with both short- and long-term solutions. Actions taken now can help the state adapt to living with fire.