The scale required to meet California’s wildfire crisis is massive. Millions of acres are in need of forest restoration, millions of homes are in need of retrofitting, millions of Californians are threatened by unprecedented wildfire risks.
And yet, the state does not have the workforce capacity to meet that scale, not even close. Historic underfunding at both the State, and particularly the federal level, and a lack of workforce training and development opportunities have led to an overstretched forest and fire contingency. A 2020 study released by The Watershed Center on California’s Forest and Fire Capacity Need listed “inadequate forest and fire funding” and “lack of available workforce” as the top referenced barriers to forest and wildfire resilience work. Additionally, the workforce we do have is so overburdened that by the end of fire season, not only are the financial resources too far depleted for effective preventative measures, our human capital is exhausted.
We have an opportunity to invest in a stronger and expanded workforce, one that is robust and sustained and can meet the social, environmental, and economic needs of our rural and forested areas. These are no longer seasonal jobs, these should be year-long, ongoing jobs that cover a broad range of sectors and grow from entry level positions to high quality careers in restoring the health of our forests and keeping our communities safe.
Recently, Sierra Business Council, along with a coalition of forestry experts and advocates, included workforce development funding in an emergency budget allocation recommendation, along with allocations focused on increasing prescribed fire, ecologically-based thinning, and community resilience. The State should be directing a portion of forest management funding toward increasing employment opportunities, developing curriculum, supporting experiential training, offering more scholarships for forestry degrees, and research that captures the full scope of employment opportunities and limitations. We should connect funding to skill and safety standards, full labor law compliance, and a floor for wages and benefits in order to ensure the expansion of high quality jobs.
By devoting some of the funds to California’s Local Conservation Corps, we can enhance job skills training and education opportunities in underserved communities – we have a unique chance to set the stage for a generation ready to take on the wildfire crisis they’ve grown up with. A great example of this is the Central Valley Forestry Corps program that was launched this spring through a CAL FIRE grant, training 100 young adults from areas with high rates of unemployment to work on fuels reduction and reforestation activities.
Which brings me to the community impacts. When it comes to the areas served, many places that would benefit most from expanding forest resilience projects are historically low income communities that have struggled with economic diversification and rely heavily on tourism and recreation. In the Sierra Nevada, for instance, 1 in 5 residents was living below the poverty line prior to the impacts of the coronavirus. These areas, along with the rest of the state, have seen significant increases in unemployment and business closures this year and are generally less equipped to recover from these significant disruptions. Meaningful investment in forest and fire workforce development and training would help revitalize the local workforce as well as the communities they live in, increasing the area’s social, economic, and environmental resilience overall—A multitude of benefits.
I’ll close with a reminder of the scale of the issue we’re dealing with. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program found that current restoration activities on National Forests are being implemented at a rate of about 6% annually. We have an opportunity to increase community safety, decrease the rate of climate change, enhance environmental resilience, and create good jobs in communities that need them. This can only be done through meaningful investment, and we can’t wait any longer.
Click here to read the full wildfire resilience emergency funding recommendation.
Our work in wildfire resilience is just one of our many regional advocacy impacts in 2020. To read more about our advocacy wins over the last year, click here.