Sonoma County taps up to $4 million for wildfire prevention
With wildfire season mere months away, Sonoma County supervisors took the first steps this week toward distributing up to $4 million in PG&E settlement funds for community fuels reduction projects in high-risk areas around the county.
The money is meant for efforts including brush clearing, tree thinning, grazing, prescribed burning, roadside work and other efforts to create defensible space around homes and communities and reduce the potential for wildfire spread.
But with a half-million acres or more of the county’s land considered to be vulnerable to future fires, officials conceded the amount was marginal — “a drop in the bucket” one expert said — compared with overall need.
Walter Kieser, a member of the Geyserville/Alexander Valley Municipal Advisory Board and an urban economist by profession, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that something closer to $250 million would be needed “to put a dent in the problem.”
The new allocation represents only the first crack at $25 million in funds set aside for fire prevention and brush management in the county’s $149 million net settlement with PG&E for losses stemming from the 2017 North Bay fires. The bulk of the money has been committed to other costs and needs, including utility undergrounding, emergency preparedness and budget shortfalls.
From that $25 million, a third — $8.3 million — was set aside for near-term projects, meaning at least half of that dedicated money remains available after the first round of urgent grants are issued.
The remaining two-thirds, or $16.6 million, is to be used over the next 10 years to create a sustainable funding mechanism for fire prevention work. That could include anything from a revolving fund to a financing district, a new tax measure to a forest resilience bond, according to a series of options laid out by consultants from the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the board chairwoman, said some funds might also come from a reconstituted version of last year’s Measure G, a half-cent county sales tax that would have raised an estimated $51 million a year, including nearly $2 million for brush work. The measure earned support from a majority of voters but fell about two points short of the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass. Officials are contemplating another attempt in June next year, Hopkins said.
Affordable projects pitched to county
Others noted that while large, landscape-scale projects could consume a sizable chunk of the funding set aside, there are a substantial number of more affordable efforts that can make a difference and cost a mere fraction of the funds available.
David Rose, chairman of the habitat restoration project committee for Friends of Rio Nido, which was threatened by the Walbridge fire last summer, told supervisors his community has a plan for fuel reduction that would utilize professional and volunteer resources but would require $90,000 over three years in assistance.
Roberta MacIntyre, the former county fire marshal who is now president and chief executive of the nonprofit Fire Safe Sonoma, said in an interview her organization had created a model for roadside fuels management using crews from the Conservation Corps North Bay. The most aggressive efforts, clearing heavy fuel up 15 feet on both sides of a road, run about $30,000 a mile, she said.
It’s an effort that can make it easier for people to evacuate in case of a fire, provide safer entry for firefighters, serve as something of a firebreak and connect to other breaks or burn zones “to basically put a box around an area, to protect built environments,” she said.
Alpine Club President Karen Passafaro, an active member of the Friends of the Mark West Watershed, said her neighborhood near badly burned St. Helena Road also was gearing up to submit applications for items listed in the community’s wildfire protection plan.
“I imagine that there will be quite a few grants that could be anywhere from $50 to $100,000,” Passafaro said.
It will be a few weeks yet before applications can be submitted to the county. A hastily established interim committee being set up in the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District will vet proposals and distribute grants.
But the goal is to fund “shovel-ready” projects that can reduce fire risk before peak wildfire season arrives in late summer, officials said.
“We really have three months to do heavy vegetation management with money on the ground, because we’re going to blink, and it’s going to be June fire season,” Supervisor James Gore said during a roughly three-hour session on the topic Tuesday.
The 5-0 vote was among a suite of decisions that included approving $660,000 for a three-year position to coordinate county vegetation management efforts — a post that will be housed in the Open Space District, which already holds expertise in the area.
Supervisors also will provide $500,000 to be matched by Santa Rosa Junior College to fund educational programming designed to help produce the labor force needed to meet the county’s future fuels management needs while creating well-paying, career opportunities in a nascent field.
The college plans to modify existing curricula in its natural resources, landscape design and construction, and animal sciences programs so they include coursework in areas like grazing for vegetation management, wildfire risk reduction and mitigation, Ben Goldstein, SRJC’s dean of Agriculture/Natural Resources, Culinary Arts, and Industrial & Trade Technologies, said in an interview.
County support would also make possible paid internships that will allow students to get “hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails experience before they graduate,” Goldstein said.
Participants attending full-time would be able to complete 24 units toward certification in a year and earn an associate degree in two years. The new programs could be up and running by fall, along with a more robust version of a 132-hour continuing education course in fire reduction and prevention that already exists.
The goal is to produce 100 trained fuels management workers over the next three years, recruiting heavily to stimulate interest with a focus on equity and working with agencies and employers to create a pipeline to jobs, Goldstein said.
“It definitely is a win-win,” he said. “We’re honored to be part of this.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.