With fire season around the corner, and PG&E again taking refuge in bankruptcy, will Governor Newsom’s “Strike Force” wildfire plan be enough to protect Bay Area homes?
The verdict is in: PG&E is responsible for the most destructive wildfire in California history. And while PG&E lawyers and state officials wrangle over the future of the utility, including the possibility of San Francisco buying PG&E’s local infrastructure, unseasonably late rains have grown more grass in our hills. Or, in firefighter parlance, there’s even more “fuel” for fire season.
What is and what is not “fuel” for fire dominated Governor Gavin Newsom’s press conference in Berkeley’s Tilden Park on April 23rd. Along with Mayor Libby Schaaf, Cal Fire and other state and federal officials, Newsom outlined the state’s $400 million "roadmap to confront the challenges of catastrophic wildfires.” These challenges directly affect one out of every four Californians – about 11 million people – who live in “high risk” fire areas of the WUI, or the Wildlife Urban Interface.
That includes the Bay Area’s own backyard, which is why the North Orinda Fuel Break, a 14-mile stretch of over 1500 acres between Berkeley’s Tilden Park to Lafayette, is scheduled for completion by December to protect an estimated 62,000 East Bay residents.
“Contra Costa County, you are as vulnerable as Butte County,” the Governor said.
The Governor's comprehensive approach included fire breaks, prescribed burns, and removing overgrowth for biomass fuels, as well as a new fleet of Blackhawk helicopters, drones and cameras for early detection of fires.
“We have been too scattershot in the past, not as deliberate as what we are doing today,” Newsom said. The Governor cited the 139 lives lost to wildfires over the last two years and that 10 of the most destructive fires in California history have happened since 2015.
Both Newsom and Schaaf also cited the 1991 Oakland hills fire as to why quick and decisive action is necessary, including the suspension of some State environmental statutes, rules, regulations, and requirements to get the massive project well underway before the impending fire season.
Officials stressed that citizens in these high-risk areas had a responsibility to defend their homes, as well.
“We do need individuals to clear the brush and harden their structures against wildfires,” Newsom said. “Look at your roof and venting and choice of landscaping.” (Newsom cited the Calfire app for wildfire and evacuation preparation.)
But some experts believe the state’s wildfire plan should focus on the hardening of homes first, instead of focusing on large scale fire breaks to remove “fuel.”
Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips and California Chaparral Institute Director Richard Halsey have stressed that the devastating fires in Paradise, Santa Rosa and other high-risk areas came from hot embers flown in from miles away, embers that could fly right over fire breaks.
“This focus on dead trees and forests is just insanity. That’s not where people are dying,” Halsey said. Thinking of trees as mostly “fuel” is overlooking the fact that many species have adapted themselves to wildfires over the millennia, not to mention their invaluable role as carbon capturers in our modern world. (Even the large eucalyptus trees of the East Bay Hills can play a vital role in fire suppression by providing shade, which can decrease the chances of a wildfire.)
Thom Porter, Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, acknowledged at the press conference that fire breaks and fuel reduction are no guarantee of preventing catastrophic fires. “It’s difficult to say a fuel reduction will stop the fire,” Porter said. “But every time a fire break is at the back or side of a fire, it has a significant impact on where that fire goes. We’re trying to herd fires.”
“There are a number of extremely dangerous myths behind this plan,” Fire Ecologist Chad Hanson responded when asked about the state’s wildfire plan and the North Orinda Fuel Break.
The effectiveness of fuel breaks is one of these dangerous myths that Hanson cites. “Instead of focusing on homes his (Newsom’s) plan is weighted towards fuel breaks. This is an early-mid 20th approach and based on ignorance of how fires burn.”
Hanson charged that the Governor is relying on myths promoted by the Trump administration to promote logging projects under the guise of community safety. He advocated making the homes more fire safe with fire-resistant roofing, rain gutter guards for flying embers, and creating a defensible space by pruning vegetation within 60-100 feet, adding that “beyond 100 feet, there is no additional benefit to the home.”
Dennis Rein, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator of the Moraga Orinda Fire District, when asked about Hanson’s issues with the plan, likened it to “putting all my money into one stock.”
“If residents do their part, and clean up valleys and provide defensible places, the fuel break gives firefighters a chance to tackle the fire.”
Another tactic of Newsom’s “all options are on the table” approach to fighting fires is the extraction of biomass from some areas.
“You can take the sugars out of forest waste and feed them to microbes that can make biodiesel,” Mary Maxon, Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences, said at the press conference. “It’s all carbon and that carbon can be used in a biological treatment to take care of our waste problem.”
Although it’s unclear if there will be biomass extraction within the North Orinda Fuel Break, Hanson is even more adamant about the wrong-headedness of biomass in the state’s plan.
“The biomass industry wants to log these trees and incinerate them for kilowatts,” Hanson said. “These are new climate change deniers. Incinerating trees for energy creates more CO2 than coal and is an incredibly dirty fuel. We should not treat our forests like coal fields.”
In addition to the sounds of chainsaws and mowers clearing the fuel break, East Bay residents will see – and smell –prescribed burning in the area.
“There will be notices of smoke in the air in the coming weeks and months,” Porter said. “Our goal is to do more prescribed burning on the landscape of California. The governor has allowed us to do all of these projects on the landscape now.”
Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, is an advocate for prescribed burning practices, which he refers to as “cultural burns.” Lopez believes it’s time for a complete transformation of California’s relationship with fire. Like high winds, droughts, floods, and earthquakes, fire must be accepted as a natural part of the California landscape.
“Historically, our people would burn landscapes depending on the type of fuel that was there,” Lopez said. “The bushier landscapes with trees would be burned every 5-8 years. The fires were used to control build-up of heavy catastrophic fuel loads and to keep landscapes open.”
Although the prescribed burns planned for the North Orinda Fuel Break are not exactly the same as the coastal practices of the Amah Mutsun tribe, they do share similarities. For example, since prescribed fire has not been practiced on the East Bay landscape for generations, the first prescribed fire will most likely be the largest.
“That initial burn will be the most dangerous,” Lopez said.
As far as air quality concerns during burns, Lopez stressed the conditions have to be just right to allow for a burn. “Every ten burns that are scheduled, only 2 or 3 are actually achieved.” Wind, temperature, humidity, air quality and even availability of the workforce due to fires elsewhere in the state could limit the actual numbers of prescribed fires locally.
“Calfire knows their reputation is on the line, so they take extraordinary efforts to make sure the fire doesn’t escape,” Lopez said.
The biggest distinction between the ancient practices of the Ah Mah Mutsun and what Cal Fire is up against in the North Orinda Fuel Break is the Wildlife Urban Interface. It’s also the clearest cause – and the one that all sides can agree on – for these catastrophic fires that claim lives and destroy property.
Simply put, we have put our lives and properties within areas that have historically had wildfires. It’s why experts like Hanson believe we have a home ignition problem, not a wildfire problem, and why completely reconsidering our relationship with fire may be in order.
“We believe fire is a tool given to us by the Creator for many purposes,” Lopez said.
In that light, no matter what PG&E’s course of action (which may include shutting off power to San Francisco during high wind events), and no matter how many Blackhawk helicopters are brought in, one thing is guaranteed: the future for fire is bright in California.