Golis: Can government reduce the risk from wildfires?

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On his second day in office, Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled to the Sierra foothills to talk about fire prevention. This will be only the first of many conversations, all aimed at confronting two grim realities: One, climate change is real; and two, millions of Californians live in fire-prone areas.

“It’s clear to me a lot more needs to be done …,” the new governor said. “We will place an historic investment in our emergency planning and emergency preparations in this state.”

And so the work begins. If progress is slow, it’s probably because every fire-related issue arrives fraught with its own set of difficult and complex choices.

In a large and populous state, providing a better defense against wildfires is going to be costly, and it’s going to force an awkward and contentious debate about the extent to which government can impose restrictions on construction in fire-prone areas.

In time, Northern Californians also may find themselves debating the future of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. A front-page headline last week posed the existential question: What happens if PG&E goes bankrupt?

In his first draft budget, released on Thursday, Newsom proposed an additional $415 million of new spending for fire prevention — money to remove brush and dead trees from thousands of acres of land, money to expand firefighting and emergency capacities and money to make emergency warning systems more effective.

“Suffice it to say,” Newsom said at a press conference in Sacramento, “there’s a real commitment to this, there’s a new day in this space.”

All this comes in the aftermath of the two most devastating fires in state history, including the October 2017 fires in Sonoma County that killed 24 people and destroyed more than 5,300 homes.

In December, a Los Angeles Times analysis found that more than 1.1 million structures in California lie within the highest-risk fire zones. That’s more than 1 in 10 buildings. Other studies say 3 million homes exist in the interface between wildland and urban landscapes.

In the short term, it is hoped investments in fire prevention, early warning systems and firefighting capacities will reduce the risk to folks living in harm’s way.

Over time, however, there will be more thorny questions to answer: Will people decide not to build in these areas in the future? Will government impose new restrictions in areas subject to wildfires? Will the cost of insurance cause people to migrate away from fire-prone landscapes?

“We have to really start to think about new measures and new approaches that have to be more drastic,” Bruce Cain, the director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, told the New York Times.

“It’s not a land management and wildland fire management problem. It’s an urban planning problem,” Max Moritz, a cooperative extension wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara, told the Times. “It’s an issue of where and how we build, and how do you get people out in time.”

Meanwhile, Californians will be left to ponder the future of PG&E, a once-respected institution that now finds itself a popular target of scorn. If found liable for fires that devastated Northern California communities, analysts say, the company could be on the hook for more than $30 billion in costs and damages, $13 billion more than its annual operating revenue.

Apportioning blame may not be so simple. No single entity, after all, is responsible for decisions that placed hundred of thousands of homes in areas at risk of wildfire, or for climate change. (In a new study published on Thursday, scientists said the Earth’s oceans are warming 40 percent faster than was predicted five years ago.)

Still, PG&E’s track record in recent years won’t qualify it for the short list of most-admired companies. Not many want to stand up and defend the company, even if nobody has a good idea what will happen if PG&E can’t pay its bills.

Closer to home, city and county officials face their own set of challenges.

Unless a way is found to replace the 5,300 homes lost in the 2017 fires, many of the Sonoma County residents who lived in those homes will be obliged to move elsewhere. In an aging county already facing a shortage of professional and skilled workers, this is no small matter.

Emergency warnings systems need to be re-invented, too, and building codes, land use plans, firefighting capacities and water supplies need to be analyzed and upgraded.

With local government budgets already straining under the weight of the post-fire costs, tough choices await.

If government agencies can reduce the risk from wildfires, they will be saving lives and property, and as Sonoma County residents can attest, they will be sparing communities from much heartbreak.

While it’s January and it was raining last week, we know a new fire season (and another and another) will be coming our way soon enough.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com

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

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