It took so long for the smoke to clear last year. When it did, we saw the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season in California history – 9,000 fires burning over 1.2 million acres, destroying 10,000 structures and killing 43 people.
If officials fail to take significant steps to prepare for this year’s wildfires, it will heap travesty upon tragedy.
First the good news. Congress fixed a major flaw in how it funds firefighting. In the past, money to fight fires was taken from crucial wildfire prevention programs – consuming more than half the budget total for removing dead trees and brush. Never mind that dead trees are fuel for fires, and that money spent preventing fires has a bigger payoff than money spent fighting them. Never before had Congress been willing to make that connection.
The $1.3 trillion budget deal President Donald Trump signed last week sets aside $2 billion a year for battling wildfires, treating them like the natural disasters they are – not the products of accident.
Unfortunately, this vital funding doesn’t fully kick in until the 2020 fire season. This year’s budget has only $500 million more for fighting fires.
We should be grateful that, after so many fires and so much destruction, that Congress finally got around to fixing its dysfunctional funding method. We should be happy that eventually $2 billion – or 0.15 percent of the nation’s overall budget – will be dedicated to keeping people and property safer. But we can’t help but wonder about the priorities of those sitting in Congress.
Forest fires wreaked $180 billion in damages in California alone in 2017. Cal Fire spent an estimated $700 million to fight those fires. So we are left wondering why Congress is willing to put only $500 million of that $2 billion on the table for fighting this year’s fires?
At the same time, Congress is increasing our nation’s military budget to $700 billion – or $60 billion more than the Department of Defense requested.
For some perspective, 31 military personnel died in war zones in 2017, up from 26 in 2016. Wildfires in California alone claimed 44 lives last year. This isn’t a military vs. forest fires argument; it’s a plea that we also prioritize the lives of everyday Americans.
The Insurance Information Institute says 4.5 million U.S. homes are at high or extreme risk of wildfire – with nearly half of those in California. Undoubtedly, that number went up this year after homes in the heart of Santa Rosa were lost to wildfire. Witnesses said Santa Rosa looked like a war zone.
It could happen here. Forests of almond and walnut trees border our Valley cities and communities.
It will become ever more difficult – and expensive – to insure homes in fire zones. There are increasing complaints about insurance policies being canceled or spiking premiums, but insurance companies have to be able to consider risk in setting rates. Legislators need to make sure homeowners are treated fairly, but also those choosing to build in hot zones bear an appropriate insurance burden.
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones is supporting laws to aid homeowners in getting adequate coverage and expediting claims. One proposal would require insurers to offer or renew coverage in danger zones if homeowners have taken credible steps to protect their property. Another would make protected properties eligible for premium discounts.
Already, fires are burning. The National Interagency Fire Center reported as of March 23, 51 large fires burning in the south. In the first three months of 2018, there have been 9,649 wildfires nationwide.
Climate change makes wildfires a year-round danger. Public policy must keep up. Revisions in federal fire funding is a good step forward, but there is much more to be done.