Jessica Cejnar / Friday, May 28 @ 6:03 p.m.
Town Hall Touches on Wildfire Prevention Grants, Resources and Concerns for 2021 and Future Seasons
Every part of Del Norte County is a prime hazard for wildfires, CalFire’s Humboldt-Del Norte Unit chief said during a town hall meeting hosted Thursday by State Sen. Mike McGuire.
Because the county, along with the rest of the Golden State, hasn’t received enough rain or snow over the winter, those hazardous areas include the immediate coast, Humboldt-Del Norte Unit Chief Kurt McCray said. Moisture for living fuels are drying out faster than anticipated, he said, and moisture in dead fuel is well below average, and in some cases have reached record lows.
“There’s a problem right underneath our feet,” McCray said. “The soil moisture at deep soil depths that allows live vegetation to remain green and somewhat charged with water, those are incredibly dry. That soil moisture is what gives living vegetation resiliency to wildfires and moderating effects on fire behavior and spread.”
Noting that his district has experienced some of the most devastating wildfires in California’s history compared to other regions, McGuire asked McCray and Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Institute, to discuss why fires are intensifying.
McGuire also invited Mary Small, deputy director of the California Coastal Conservancy, and Shana Jones, CalFire’s Sonoma Napa Lake Unit chief, to discuss grant funding and other resources available to prevent wildfires.
Those resources include $1.5 billion in wildfire prevention and response funding, McGuire said. Roughly $536 million is already being allocated to local cities, counties, fire districts for fuel breaks, dead and dying tree removal as well as the hiring of roughly 1200 more firefighters for CalFire, he said.
According to McGuire, the California Legislature hopes to get the $1 billion in wildfire prevention and preparedness dollars approved by June 30.
The California Coastal Commission has allocated $12 million in grants to fund 33 projects statewide, including 15 in Northern California, Small said. These include $1 million to further forest health and fire resilience in the Prairie Creek Watershed in Humboldt County, a $35,000 grant to the Hoopa Valley Tribe for defensible space projects and $75,000 to the Trinity Resource Conservation District for vegetation management.
Local government entities, nonprofit organizations and tribes had roughly two weeks to submit project proposals to the Coastal Conservancy, Small said. The conservancy will issue a new request for proposals this summer. Small said those wanting more information should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We can only give grants to nonprofits, tribes and government entities,” Small said. “So for individual homeowners that are interested in doing work, they really need to connect up with a resource conservation district or with a program run by their local fire district. There are some fire districts running community chipper programs and we would be happy to fund those programs, but we would fund it through the fire district.”
It’s the accumulation of fuel and a warming climate that’s led to a rapid intensification of wildfires to “totally unprecedented levels,” Wara said. In the last five years, the average number of acres burned in California went from 800,000 to 1.6 million acres, he said.
Wara also noted that the suppression of cultural burning by local Native Americans has attributed to the fuel accumulations.
“It removed an important source of good fire in the environment,” he said. “Also well-intentioned fire exclusion policies led to a build up of fuels that has led to dangerous levels that might not be concerning except for the fact that we’re experiencing the effects of climate change.”
As Northern California has warmed, the air has become dryer, sucking moisture from vegetation, Wara said.
McCray said he’s seen the average number of acres burned in California increase 500 percent since his career started in 1987. Forest health, impacts from the drought as well as disease and insects has also been a contributing factor to wildfires in the Western U.S., he said.
Both McCray and Wara spoke of dryer autumns that extend well into November and early December. By that point, McCray said, Northern California could have gone 150 or more days without significant rainfall, enhacing fire activity and spread, he said.
“We’ve augmented funding to increase staffing as well as our training,” McCray said. “So our peak staffing is going to be on June 1 this year in Northern California — three to four weeks ahead of a normal year.”
Along with the additional seasonal firefighters, Calfire will add seven large tankers and a new helicopter to its aviation program, McCray said.
According to McGuire, those seven C130 tankers been in service with the U.S. Coast Guard. CalFire is also retiring 12 Vietnam War era helicopters and replacing them with Black Hawk Night Fighting helicopters.
Jones, noting that CalFire owns one of the largest fleets of aerial response craft in the world, said the agency also has the ability to call for additional resources when needed. Plus, she said, one of the new Black Hawk helicopters will be stationed in her unit.
“It flies faster and delivers 1,000 gallons of water at a time, so it’s more than we had before,” she said. “It brings a quick and efficient and effective aviation model to our existing system.”
McCray, however, noted that aircraft alone doesn’t extinguish fires.
“Our aircraft are there to buy us time to get ground resources to the fire to effect containment and control of fires,” he said.
Residents making sure there’s an area of defensible space around their homes and making sure emergency personnel can find their home would also go a long way to controlling wildfires.
Both McCray and Jones pointed folks to readyforwildfire.org, which offers information on creating a vegetation space, including cleaning gutters, clearing weeds and having fire resistant roof shingles.
Jones also urged people to get in touch with their local fire safe councils, neighborhood cleanup groups and resource conservation districts. Since fire season has begun, Jones also recommended keeping an eye out for red flag warnings. She also urged those using mechanical vegetation clearing tools to do that work before 10 a.m.
“Fires are inevitable and you need to be prepared in the event of an evacuation,” she said. “Prepare a bag. Be ready. Know where to go. Have a plan ahead of times. Know two ways out and practice them with family.”