December Editorial: California Wildfires. The New Abnormal?

Written By: SCFB Executive Director Tawny Tesconi
Published: December 1, 2019

It is interesting. Starting in kindergarten and up until high school, there were emergency drills focused “on the big one” – the earthquake that was going to hit the west coast with a vengeance like previous generations experienced in 1906.  Our fear of a devastating quake has now been replaced, or at least duplicated, but what seems to be a reality – the next wildfire. And these fears are warranted and supported by statistics and data induced observations.

My Dad only spoke of one major wildfire during his 78 years living in Sonoma County. A Santa Rosa native, he often shared tales of the days that he, my brothers, uncles, and cousins fought the 1964 Hanly Fire. At that time, our family had skin in the game since, after immigrating from Italy, my grandfather had purchased several hundred acres of Sonoma County pasture lands that were nestled in the heart of the Hanly Fire. (My family’s original homestead is the current site of the Keysight Technologies campus.) Dad, along with his brothers, ran cattle up on the “Hill Ranch” and fought alongside the trained firefighters to beat-back the Hanly Fire.

Dad laid claim to one major wildfire in his years and I have already had three major wildfires ravage our local landscape in my lifetime.

There are several charts that compare California’s wildfires over the centuries, and regardless of what metric you use (number of acres, quantity of structures, loss of life), it is evident that the last decade of fires has brought mass destruction, even when firefighting methods and technology to manage fires is at its best.  And, those same data points suggest we are not just seeing more fires in California but that the fires that are plaguing the western United States are more hateful and intense.

Climate change, urban development into wildlands, electrical equipment malfunction and other phenomenon are being blamed for these destructive fires and I have no doubt that collectively they play a factor in the wildfires threatening California.  All these causes can be mitigated with time, but some will take decades or centuries to right and most requiring fixes that are out of the jurisdiction or resources of our leadership.

However, a significant fix that can be managed by state and local leaders is the reduction of fuels that feed the fires.  We need tougher regulations requiring land and forest management and these regulations needed to start yesterday.

When a local farmer damaged by any of the recent fires shares their story, it often includes a proclamation that the fire would have been a smaller footprint, easier to control or less intense if there weren’t unmanaged or undermanaged properties in the fire’s swath.  As much as folks are recognizing vineyards and grazed pastures for their role as fire breaks during these firestorms, little is being done to enforce responsible land management on both private and public properties.

If you live in the city limits and you do not maintain your landscape or manage your vegetation growth the owner on record gets a threatening abatement letter that requires him or her to mow or otherwise clean up their property. Failure to do so by a certain date results in the jurisdiction having the work done for the landowner at three times the going rate to do it personally. Harsh…maybe, but it is effective.

We need that same land management oversight in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County. There are ordinances requiring management of hazardous wastes and other property use restrictions, and there may even be something that discusses vegetation management, but there is no concerted effort to enforce the reduction of fire fuel. If people cannot be good neighbors, then they need to be regulated into being so.

It is not easy for me to suggest we need more regulations put on landowners. I feel properties are cursed with regulatory overreach and costs that yield less in return. However, this proposed regulatory effort would result in fewer lives and property losses from fire, an increase in crop productivity and less chance of our beautiful ag lands becoming some rich guy’s weekend retreat.

I know it is not an easy lift. Fences must be built, more local grazing herds or flocks are needed, and public oversight and resources are required.  Yet the return on investment would be significant and our farming community has the talent to guide regulations to make it happen in a sensible way.  In addition, to support this initiative there needs to be a movement to requiring mandatory ag production on all conservation easements issued by the Ag & Open Space department. Through strong public policy, we need to embrace the notion that open space can also mean productive, working lands.

Does this sound like a good idea? Do you think you could inform the process? If so, then I want to hear from you!

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