Recovery

Gov. Brown Orders Major Offensive Against Wildfire Threat

The executive order will launch a slate of projects to improve forest conditions and increase fire protection, including a doubling of the amount of land managed by controlled burns, tree thinning and other forest-management tactics.

by Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle / May 11, 2018
Plumes of smoke rises as the northern front of the Detwiler wildfire burns outside of Coulterville, Calif., on July 20, 2017. TNS

(TNS) - Gov. Jerry Brown, alarmed by reports that climate change is dramatically increasing fire risk, on Thursday ordered an all-out attack by scientists, land managers, industry and the public on the dangerous conditions that helped spread last year’s devastating wildfires.

The executive order will launch a slate of projects to improve forest conditions and increase fire protection, including a doubling of the amount of land managed by controlled burns, tree thinning and other forest-management tactics.

The extra work would be financed with $96 million the governor is proposing in his May budget revision, to be released Friday. The money would augment the $160 million in cap-and-trade revenue that he has previously proposed spending for forest improvements and fire protection in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The spending would have to be approved by the Legislature.

“Devastating forest fires are a profound challenge to California,” Brown said. “I intend to mobilize the resources of the state to protect our forests and ensure they absorb carbon to the maximum degree.”

The money would be used to implement the governor’s Forest Carbon Plan, also released Thursday, and to improve the health of the state’s forests, which draw carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the trees, shrubs and soil.

The idea is to manage the forests in a way that will reduce tree mortality, improve watersheds and increase the ability of California’s 33 million acres of forest to capture carbon.

John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said Brown’s order is “a call to action” for all state, federal and local agencies, California Indian tribes, forest management companies, and industries to step forward.

“Its clear we’re facing a catastrophic shift in our forests,” Laird said. “Science tells us that these trends will only be exacerbated by climate change.”

The executive order comes a day after the release of an alarming 350-page report by the California Environmental Protection Agency that documents the ruinous domino effect of climate change — including bigger, more intense forest fires, longer droughts, and an ever-shrinking snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.

The five largest fire years since 1950 have all occurred since 2006, and eight of the state’s 20 most destructive fires have happened in the past four years. The Thomas Fire, which swept through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last year, was the largest fire in California history. Taken together, the wind-blown wildfires that killed 45 people and destroyed 8,900 homes in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties in October were the most deadly.

A state Tree Mortality Task Force has removed more than 1.2 million dead or dying trees from the state’s forests since 2015. Forestry officials and biologists say higher temperatures intensify droughts, kill trees and increase the threat of wildfire.

The order establishes a Forest Management Task Force, which will be convened in the next few weeks to help implement the plan. The money would also go toward increasing public education and training, and expanding innovative uses of forest products for building and other industries.

Brown’s plan includes the following:

•Doubling the land actively managed through vegetation thinning, controlled fires and reforestation from 250,000 acres to 500,000 acres.

• Creating programs to help promote forest health through prescribed burning.

•Teaching landowners better ways to reduce vegetation and other forest-fire fuels on private lands.

• Streamlining the process for property owners to win permits to improve forest health and reduce forest-fire fuels on their land.

• Supporting the innovative use of forest products, including lumber and wood products for building, and organic matter for fuel and to generate electricity.

•Expanding grants, training and other incentives to improve watersheds.

The move is the latest by Brown to combat climate change and its impacts, in defiance of efforts by the Trump administration to dismantle regulations intended to protect the environment.

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @pfimrite

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