California’s Wildfire Risk Reduction Budget: An Unparalleled Opportunity and Unprecedented Need

Brittany Benesi

Brittany Benesi

Government & Community Affairs Director

In the spring of this year, California’s leaders took bold action in passing $536 million in an emergency action wildfire funding package to fund wildfire resilience projects (including fuel breaks, prescribed fire, watershed restoration, and ecological thinning) ahead of the standard budget cycle. Amidst record-breaking heat waves, a historic drought, and the weight of unparalleled wildfire risk, it is imperative that California’s leaders continue and expand upon this bold action through the final 2021-22 Budget. Sierra Business Council, alongside partners across the region as well as the state, are advocating for direct funding allocations to local entities with proven ability to turn dollars into meaningful action, with a particular focus on the Sierra Nevada and California Tahoe Conservancies.

Policy wonks throughout the state know that this year’s budget process has been unlike any other. Funding for wildfire prevention, in particular, has gone through a bizarre process, riding a rollercoaster of proposals from $1 billion to $258 million, to the most recent addition of $500 million that could be made available this year should the Department of Finance deem it necessary. SBC strongly supports the addition of $500 million available funds added to the initial allocation of $258 million in this year’s budget. Those funds should be directly allocated to local experts and implementers, not through the discretion of the Department of Finance. Experts have, however, identified a minimum of $2 billion/year for 10 years is required to restore California’s forest health and wildfire resilience. We strongly encourage an additional $1.25 billion, utilizing the added $3 billion in surplus funds realized in the past month alone, to fund regional, landscape-scale restoration and resilience work. To protect our communities, our people, and our natural resources, to increase our resilience to the impacts of climate change, and to ensure this protection is sustained in perpetuity, it is vital that California increase its commitment to meaningful and proactive land management.

We recognize that some legislative leaders have concerns regarding agency capacity to implement such a funding increase in the timeline needed to protect California. However, regional entities such as state conservancies, resource conservation districts, fire-safe councils, and land trusts have proven track records of getting those funds on the ground. For instance, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) announced this week Immediate Action Wildfire and Forest Resilience Fund awards to 15 projects in some of California’s highest risk areas, allocating nearly 100% of their early action funds. An additional 13 projects met SNC’s grant criteria, but additional funding was not available to distribute. SNC has a database of shovel-ready resilience projects, identifying a $135 million need and opportunity to take historic action toward reducing the Sierra’s wildfire risk. Similarly, the California Tahoe Conservancy has allocated 100% of the early action funding it received. The funds will be used throughout the year to reduce hazardous fuels and hazard trees on small lots in neighborhoods, as well as to provide matching funds to grant-funded projects, and for permitting, surveying, and marking for 2022 and 2023 projects.

As our legislative leaders work to determine the final details of the FY 2021-22 budget package, we are respectfully recommending the following wildfire resilience components as vital to the resilience of the communities, economy, and environment of the Sierra Nevada region.

  • $300 million to the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (PRC Section 33345.1) and $100 million to the Lake Tahoe Basin Environmental Improvement Program (Title 7.42 of the Government Code). These are existing collaborative, multi-jurisdictional, and multi-benefit approaches that have local buy-in, state, and legislative oversight, and strategic direction. These programs and plans are the most effective mechanisms for increasing the pace and scale of forest and watershed protection and restoration to achieve climate resilience in the Sierra Nevada region.
  • $60 million for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy for wildfire risk reduction projects across the Sierra Nevada region.
  • $21 million for the California Tahoe Conservancy for treatment of Conservancy-owned lands and the funding of projects throughout the California side of the Lake Tahoe Basin.
  • $49 million for the Climate Catalyst Fund to spur private investment in traditional and innovative uses of woody biomass products of ecologically-based thinning.
  • $50 million for the Department of Conservation for a regional biofuels pilot project sited in the Sierra Nevada.
    $60 million for the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program.
  • $45 million for workforce development training through the California Conservation Corps and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

These budget recommendations are based on the three-tiered wildfire strategy that SBC has advocated throughout the legislative session, working to increase our response and resources toward three primary needs:

  1. Alignment of local, state and federal strategy: Currently, wildfire mitigation, forest management, and forest restoration are managed across multiple local, state, and federal agencies and programs with varying levels of capacity and funding. The state should lead an effort to align resources strategically to address needs across the entire community wildfire transect. This would require the development of community-specific strategies prioritized by risk and vulnerability, the alignment of program investments to meet the highest need, and streamlining program application processes and grant processes to meet broader long-term strategic objectives.
  2. Increase and stabilize funding: Wildfire mitigation, forest management, and forest restoration programs are currently often funded through state bond funding approved by voters. Bond funding is important and should continue for capital investments in land protection and restoration to mitigate wildfire risk. However, the lack of permanent stable funding leads to inconsistencies in program implementation, making a strategic and long-term investment in wildfire mitigation impossible since local and state agencies cannot depend upon future funding. An increasing share of wildfire mitigation funding must be secured through the general fund budget processes and new sources of dedicated funding. In addition, based on the recently approved MOU for shared stewardship between California and the USFS, significant effort should go into scaling federal investment to meet the California Forest Carbon Plan (CFCP) objectives of thinning or treating 1,000,000 acres per year.
  3. Deploy resources across the community wildfire transect: Successful deployment of a long-term strategy will require different approaches to implementation.
    • Community and Built Environment: increase deployment of home hardening resources, development and deployment of fire safe building materials.Increase emphasis on defensible space, deployment of community monitoring and community alert systems, and development of infrastructure to act as safe refuges in wildfire incidents.
    • Wildland Urban Interface (WUI): shift housing development patterns to incentivize density in community centers and reduce development in the WUI, increase investment in multi-purpose community buffers that can act as strategic fuel breaks and shaded fuels breaks, streamline vegetation management in the WUI (utilizing the Cal VTP), increase use of prescribed fire to manage vegetation within the WUI, identification, and development of escape routes in the most at-risk communities.
    • Landscape Scale: increase emphasis on large landscape forest restoration planning modeled on projects (like the Tahoe Central Sierra Initiative) that focus on restoring forests to a fire-adapted state by gradually scaling thinning to 1,000,000 acres per year. Increase use of prescribed fire, streamlined permitting and waiver processes for deployment of prescribed fire, scale the deployment of value-added wood products such as bioenergy, biofuels, and mass timber products to utilize forest waste materials removal needed to get back to fire-adapted forests.

As the Legislature heads into their summer recess, we encourage our leaders to work together to determine the key details of the available funds, with a focus on providing local and regional experts the resources needed to implement the projects that are ready to go ahead of next year’s wildfire season. We have an unprecedented opportunity to address California’s wildfire crisis, enabling action at the scale essential to provide for a safer present, stronger recovery, and more resilient future.

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