Editorial: California needs dedicated wildfire prevention funds

California needs a long-term, dedicated source of revenue for wildfire prevention.
It’s inconceivable that the Legislature failed to take action in 2020 to address one of the state’s most pressing issues. Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers must not let another year pass by without making a serious investment in wildfire prevention.
California wildfires burned nearly 4.5 million acres in 2020. The state has experienced more than 9,600 fires this year, including five of the six biggest wildfires in California history. The fires have killed 31 people and destroyed more than 10,000 homes and buildings. And scientists say that breathing in the resulting dirty air is the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes in a day.
Those weren’t the only costs. California spent more than $2.5 billion fighting the wildfires this year. The total economic toll of the state’s wildfires is estimated at $10 billion.
Lawmakers should have acted in 2018, when wildfires burned nearly 2 million acres, resulting in 100 fatalities and the loss of nearly 25,000 homes and buildings, including the entire town of Paradise.
But a last-minute effort in August to pass a bill that would have provided $500 million on wildfire response and prevention failed over disagreement on where the money would be generated. Senate Democrats urged that a fee on electricity bills should be extended for a decade. That drew the ire of utilities, businesses and farmers. So legislators instead argued that the money should come from the state’s cap-and-trade program. But that, too, went up in flames. Cap and trade isn’t likely to provide a long-term answer. How do we know? The Legislature passed legislation in 2018 that in theory would provide $200 million a year from the state’s cap-and-trade funds for wildfire prevention, but the Los Angeles Times reported that the money never materialized in 2020 because the COVID-19 pandemic dried up industry activity that generated the funds.
Nor can the state rely on Congress to provide the solution. Republicans and Democrats in Washington are still arguing over the best approach to preventing wildfires and the extent to which climate change is driving the increased risk. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., put forth separate bills this year aimed at wildfire prevention, but odds of Congress passing a wildfire prevention bill may largely depend on the outcome of Georgia’s Senate races and the degree to which President-elect Joe Biden is willing to prioritize the issue.
Without predictable money for prevention, the damage will only get worse. Climate change is lengthening the fire season throughout the West. This year’s lack of rainfall and the potential for a depleted snowpack will likely make the summer’s challenge even greater.
The governor said last January that “combating California’s wildfires will continue to be a top priority for my administration.”
Creating a stable, long-term source of revenue dedicated to wildfire prevention is essential for fulfilling that goal.
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