Kamala Harris announces wildfire money on visit to California


As large, damaging wildfires become more common due to the effects of climate change, the federal government is redoubling efforts to contain them.

That’s the message Vice President Kamala Harris delivered on Friday during a visit to San Bernardino, in which she highlighted billions of dollars in federal funding to reduce the risk of wildfires and help communities recover from them.

“It’s about recognizing that we, as a government, or as a society, or as people who care, we can’t just respond to a moment of harm or danger,” said Harris, who appeared alongside a host of officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “We also need to be able to use technology, common sense and the expertise of local people to understand that we have the tools to predict these wildfires in advance.”

The federal government will provide $600 million in disaster funds to help California recover from a historically severe wildfire season in which fires scorched nearly 2.6 million acres and for the first time — and then for the second time — burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other. That money is part of a $1.3 billion commitment to local communities across the country to help clean up hazardous materials, restore forests and repair infrastructure damaged by wildfires, Harris said.

Harris also announced new $48 million in funding for the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership — a joint effort between the National Resources Conservation Service and the US Forest Service to undertake forest management projects such as thinning vegetation and creating firebreaks. The funding will support 17 new projects in the West, including two in California — one in Six Rivers National Forest and one in Klamath National Forest, Vilsack said.

The funding complements the $5 billion money for wildfire preparedness and resilience provided for by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law in November. This money will help fund federal firefighter salaries, fund grants to create defensible space around communities, fund burned area cleanup efforts, and reduce hazardous fuels.

On a bright and blustery afternoon, Harris made her announcement at the Forest Service’s Del Rosa station, located just on the edge of the San Bernardino Forest. Bordering a hilly, residential neighborhood in northeast San Bernardino, the station is home to the Del Rosa Hotshots, a crew who work on all phases of wilderness firefighting.

At various points during the outdoor press conference, protesters could be heard chanting anti-Biden slogans through a megaphone.

Before her performance, Harris took a scenic flight through the San Bernardino National Forest to see the scars of the El Dorado fire, which was started by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party in the fall of 2020 that burned down nearly 23,000 acres and resulted in the death of a firefighter.

This fire season was the worst in California history in terms of acres burned, but such hard years have become more common over time, said Tony Scardina, deputy regional ranger for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region.

In the 20 years to 2019, California wildfires burned 12 million acres; In the past two years alone, 7 million acres in the state have burned, he said.

“So let’s talk about accelerating fire behavior in the context of drought, in the context of climate change, and then look at how we can help communities in this wild urban intersection,” he said.

The vice president’s announcement comes days after the Forest Service unveiled a 10-year plan to quadruple fuel-reduction treatments across the western United States to reduce vegetation that fuels fast-moving wildfire and make landscapes more resilient to the Effects of fires could make . The goal is to treat up to 20 million acres of national forest and grassland and up to 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal and private lands.

The infrastructure bill will provide $655 million per year for this work for five years, in addition to the Forest Service’s annual allocations for fuel reduction and recovery activities, which totaled $262 million in fiscal 2021. Assuming this baseline persists, the funds represent a 350% increase over past annual investments, the Forest Service said.

Still, the total cost of the 10-year plan is estimated at about $50 billion — $20 billion for treatments on national forest lands and $30 billion on non-national forest lands — so some of that has yet to be funded .

Experts say the shift to mitigation is urgent as the cost of fighting wildfires has skyrocketed. The US Forest Service spent an average of nearly $2.2 billion in annual firefighting expenses from 2016 to 2020, including more than $4 billion last year. In California, the Forest Service spent $999 million in fiscal 2021, including costs resulting from the 1 million-acre August Complex fire, the largest in state history.

“We’re finding that the wildfire season is getting longer and longer every year — we’re wondering if it’s even a season anymore,” said Julia Stein, project director for the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. “While the need for means of suppression is still great, it is important that we think ahead and take action to prevent fires before they start.”

Meanwhile, the state’s long and ongoing housing crisis has caused more people to move to communities bordering wilderness areas, putting them — literally — squarely in the line of fire and making interventions to protect neighborhoods even more necessary, she said.

“As we know that climate change will increase the likelihood of these mega wildfires here in California and the western United States, it is important to think ahead and face these crises rather than just being in a reactive stance. ” She said.

Times contributor Noah Bierman contributed to this report. Kamala Harris announces wildfire money on visit to California

Tom Vazquez

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