Visitor Spending in the Sierra is making a comeback after 2020’s dismal drop in tourism, but the tourism industry may have to make some fundamental changes in order to build a sustainable recreation-based economy in a post-pandemic world.
Wildfire is the apex issue in our region, impacting the environment, economies, and public health of the Sierra. This past summer, our region’s communities were at the mercy of several major wildfires including the Beckworth Complex fire (105,670 acres burned), the Dixie fire (963,309 acres burned), the Caldor fire (221,835 acres burned), the Tamarack fire (68,637 acres burned), and the Kings Canyon Complex fire (~88,307 acres burned and only 75% contained as of 11/19/21).
This problem is already impacting life as we know it in the Sierra and is only growing in its severity:
“While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year. Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire. The length of the fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.”
Out of the ~3.1 million acres that burned in California so far this year (2021), at least ~1.5 million (~48%) of those acres burned within the Sierra Nevada. Three of the major Sierra fires this year were considered megafires, resulting in over 200 days of burning with severe air quality impacts. At least 2,332 people lost their homes and businesses due to fire in the Sierra.
The Dixie fire is the largest single fire and second largest fire in California’s known history burning at just under 1 million acres and stretching across five counties. The Caldor fire is listed as the 15th largest fire in California’s known history, burning across 3 counties. Both of these 2021 Sierra fires also made the top 16 list for most destructive, and they aren’t the only Sierra fires that made Cal-Fire’s “Top 20” lists.
These fires have left the Sierra with tremendous loss—loss of homes, lives, businesses, forests, air quality, and energy autonomy due to the increasingly common preventative PSPS and PSOM events.
The severity of this problem is addressed by each of SBC’s three focus areas—our climate action, regional advocacy, and economic empowerment teams are each working on solutions that tackle the many challenges presented by severe wildfires.
Our economic empowerment programs partner with communities directly affected by the fires, assisting with economic development projects, disaster relief funds, and more. We also provide direct one-on-one support to small businesses dealing with a range of wildfire impacts, from loss of tourism income due to smoke or evacuations to actual damages to their locations.
Our regional advocacy work involves prioritizing funding, strategies, and policies at the state level to ensure the Sierra’s needs are heard. In 2021, we successfully advocated for a $1.5 billion wildfire funding package and a $3.7 billion climate resilience package in California’s State Budget. We ensure the voice of the Sierra is heard in Sacramento and advocate for forest management policies and investments that are backed by science and offer a clear path forward for the state to address our monumental wildfire problem.
Our climate action team works to both mitigate and adapt to accelerated climate-impacted challenges in the Sierra, including increasing severity of wildfire. We facilitate education and collaborative opportunities among Sierra Nevada agencies, businesses, and communities through Sierra CAMP and work to increase energy independence and efficiency through Sierra Nevada Energy Watch. Our team is also conducting a 22-county climate vulnerability assessment for the entirety of the Sierra Nevada to better understand how climate projections will lead to increasing wildfire severity as well as hotter and dryer days.
Our various teams at SBC are currently working to both lessen the consequences of future fire impacts as well as to respond to and rebuild from fires that have already impacted our vulnerable communities. Through our multifaceted approach to resilience, mitigation, and adaptation, we believe the Sierra can return to a healthy relationship with fire.
Over the coming year, we will continue our multifaceted approach to wildfire resilience in the Sierra. Will you support this three-pronged approach with a contribution to SBC this giving season?
…Of particular interest to SBC and our region is, of course, funding for wildfire and climate resilience programs.
California’s already lofty state budget surplus reached a new high of $97.5 billion, and the budget itself grew to a record $300 billion in spending as Governor Newsom released his administration’s revisions to its 2022-23 budget proposal on May 13. What impacts will these big numbers have on the Sierra Nevada? Will there be more funding and opportunity for state investment be coming our way?