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Feinstein: Living with the growing threat of wildfire

California is no stranger to wildfires. Hundreds have died over the years, tens of thousands of structures have burned and entire communities have been devastated. This year, like the devastating fire years we had in 2017 and 218, looks to be historically bad.

Dozens of wildfires are still burning today, including two of the biggest in California history. Hundreds of fires were sparked over a three-day period in mid-August, caused by nearly 14,000 lightning strikes.

So far, 1.7 million acres have burned, an area larger than the state of Delaware. That’s three times the acreage scorched in an average fire season. Around 125,000 Californians have been driven from their homes, and eight lives have been lost. And we haven’t even entered our annual dry wind-fueled danger period in the autumn.

The 2018 Camp fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It killed 85 people, destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and burned more than 150,000 acres in and around the town of Paradise. Some estimates claim it spread as fast as 80 acres per minute. Even after it was extinguished, seeing the devastation was heartbreaking.

Dianne Feinstein
Dianne Feinstein

In fact, nine of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred in just the past five years. In 2018, 1.8 million acres burned in California, a record we may surpass this year.

We know that climate change is driving this increase in fires. It’s contributing to conditions that can result in more dry lightning strikes like those we saw in August. It’s causing changes in precipitation patterns that leave our forests more susceptible to massive, dangerous fires. It’s causing more unpredictable wind events that take down power lines and spark blazes. And it’s making all fires bigger, hotter and more dangerous.

Death Valley recently hit 130 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. Climate change is undeniably driving these changes, and things will only get worse until we get climate change under control. The 2018 National Climate Assessment found the number of acres burned in the western United States over the past 30 years is double what would have burned if the climate wasn’t changing.

Clearly we have to change how we prepare our forests and communities to prevent fires from growing out of control. Doing nothing will cost more lives, destroy more homes and upend more communities.

That’s why Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, and I introduced the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act.

Our goal was to write a bill that would help protect communities from catastrophic wildfires. We aim to do this by implementing critical wildfire mitigation projects, sustaining healthier forests that are more resilient to climate change and providing important energy and retrofitting assistance to businesses and homes so they’re better equipped to survive wildfires and power shutoffs.

One way we can mitigate future fires is by removing dead trees and thinning overgrown forests.

Historic drought and the devastating bark beetle have left nearly 150 million dead trees in California’s forests that provide fuel for fires to quickly grow into the giant infernos we’ve witnessed in recent years.

One major stumbling block to clearing these dead trees and low-value undergrowth has been the lack of a commercial biomass market. Dead trees cannot be used for lumber and have little use beyond being burned for biomass. But without a viable market their removal is costly and unattractive to private business.

Currently, that represents a significant, and costly, burden on state and local governments to get rid of these dangerous tress. That’s why our bill helps foster the growth of a market and lifts an export ban on this timber if no domestic market can be found.

Removing millions of dead and low-value trees will slow the spread of wildfires and give firefighters more time to contain and extinguish fires before they can grow out of control.

We can also slow the spread of fire by increasing the size of firebreaks and gaps in vegetation between forests and homes so our communities are protected.

Our bill facilitates the use of those firebreaks and helps homeowners retrofit with fire-resistant materials to lessen the chances of whole neighborhoods being destroyed by an approaching fire, as we saw in Paradise.

Additionally, by increasing the use of controlled burns, we could remove undergrowth to make our forests more resilient to catastrophic fires. Prescribed burns recreate the natural phenomenon of undergrowth removal that occurred for millennia, preventing forests from becoming overgrown and more susceptible to unstoppable fires.

Our bill creates a training center for firefighters on best practices for controlled burns so they can implement them in our forests.

By limiting the size and spread of future fires, prescribed burns not only keep our communities safer, but they also prevent ancient old-growth trees like our precious redwoods from burning as well.

We need to do more to prepare homes, businesses and emergency services for future fires.

Our bill specifically helps critical sites like hospitals and police stations become more energy efficient and better adapted to function during power shutoffs. It also promotes research for new methods of distributed electricity like microgrids that minimize the need for widespread power shutoffs, which may become more common as climate changes increases the frequency of dangerous hot and windy conditions.

Climate change will amplify the hazards of wildfires for years to come. But the measures in this bill will help us change how we confront those hazards.

We saw exactly how bad things can get when firefighting strategies remain stagnant. Earlier this year in Australia, horrifying fires burned 46 million acres, a tragedy almost beyond understanding.

The only way to stop the growth and damage of fires here at home is to prepare our forests and communities to meet the new challenges posed by wildfires. Our current fire situation is a glimpse into our future if we don’t mobilize and meet the moment.

Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, represents California in the U.S. Senate.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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