Friday, February 22, 2019     Volume: 19, Issue: 51

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on August 8th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 23 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 23

State Sen. Jackson's bill targets wildfire prevention

By Spencer Cole

As much of California burns in the middle of a particularly bad fire season, one bill penned by a Central Coast state senator is making its way through the Assembly. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson's (D-Santa Barbara) Senate Bill 1260 aims to improve "forest management practices to reduce the risk of wildfires in light of our changing climate." 

In a conference call on Aug. 3, Jackson gave reporters an update on the bill's progress. The bill passed through the Senate on May 25 and was most recently amended in the Assembly on July 2. 

"This measure, along with commitment from [Gov. Jerry Brown] will allow California to more than triple the amount of land that is treated with prescribed fire, thus significantly reducing wildfire fuel," she said. The bill also includes additional prevention efforts, lists provisions for wildfire hazard mitigation, and calls for collaborative forest management between government agencies, nonprofits, and the public. 

It also gives California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) a means to provide input during new home planning in fire hazard regions. Jackson explained the latter as essential "so that we build in the most responsible ways, particularly in areas that are most vulnerable to these fires."

Another portion of the bill would provide the state's Air Resources Board a pathway to develop an air quality and smoke monitoring program for prescribed burns. 

"We know they have an impact on air quality, but frankly, they pale in comparison to the air quality consequences of a catastrophic wildfire," Jackson said. "In California we must do everything we can to stop these uncontrolled wildfires from breaking out in the first place." 

Joining Jackson on the conference call were two representatives from environmental groups who support the piece of legislation. 

Paul Mason, a vice president for policy with the Pacific Forest Trust, told reporters that prescribed fires give state officials and forest managers control over the timing and intensity of fires, as well as their impact on the landscape and nearby human communities. 

He said the prescribed burning method was essential to land management in the state's wildlands. 

"It has to be a cornerstone of how we make California more resilient going forward," Mason explained. "Today's forests in California look nothing like the historical forests, pre 1800: a legacy of logging, mining, grazing, and then land use development, combined with a really effective fire suppression program for the last many decades, has fundamentally changed what our landscape looks like." 

Add climate change to that mix, Mason said, and then you have those unfavorable conditions coupled with warmer than normal temperatures lasting for longer periods and intense drought cycles.

"It has put us in a very different, less stable position than we've been in the past," he said. "Unfortunately, this is only going to get worse." 

Mason noted that simply the appearance of a dense forest in the mountains isn't necessarily what scientists would call natural. "That's really the byproduct of prior human intervention decisions and fire suppression," he said. "These issues combined with climate change and drought have led to these really large [tree] mortality events and the uncharacteristic fire behavior we've been seeing the last couple of years with low humidity, high winds, and dense fuel loads." 

And it's critical that California as a state tries to increase the resilience of its landscape. Part of that means more large trees and fewer small ones, Mason said. 

"Historically, there were a lot more big trees, fewer small trees, and very frequent fire," he added, which is important when considering using fire proactive policies like controlled burns to be able to restore and maintain natural conditions that existed before broad European settlement in the 1800s.

According to Mason, more than 4.5 million acres a year burned in California pre Gold Rush. However, those fires occurred at much lower intensities, in part due to the number of large trees and consistent fires wiping out vast groves of smaller ones, like spruce, which grow as little as a few inches away from each other and provide vast fuel sources when not properly managed.

"We can talk about fire protection and defending from fire, but at the same time we need to increase significantly the ecological use of fire to protect communities and people in the future," saidCraig Thomas, with Sierra Forest Legacy. "We have pretended we could relegate fire to the dustbin of history, and we found out that that doesn't work really well."

Both Thomas and Mason conceded to reporters on the conference call that there was no future scenario where California did not have wildfires.

"Fire is always going to be part of California's ecology," Mason said. "Trying to stop it is not an option."

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