The large and growing patches of dead trees in California's forests are less perceptible to the public than even the falling aquifers, which at least have immediate consequences in the growing number of dry wells. If you aren't flying over forests or talking to people who work or camp in them, it isn't easy to get a sense of the magnitude of what the drought has done to California forests. Wildfires through oak woodlands or forest fires may consume dead trees and leave others dead, can give us an idea of the stress forests are under now. But, strangely, the terror, injury and death of wild animals is not apparently considered news. Certainly not nearly as important as the loss of human habitations built in areas which, in retrospect, were seen to be vulnerable to large, fast, deadly fires.
Here are few articles that discuss different aspects of the problem. Some are saying, whether to raise the alarm, make a profit or a reputation, that this drought has permanently changed our forests. -- blj
UCSB The Current
Hot, Dry and Dying
UC Santa Barbara scientists say record heat and drought are taking a deadly toll on California’s native trees
If you want to see how hard California has suffered in the drought and record heat, take a stroll through a stand of oaks. You’ll likely see brown patches in the canopies and dead branches. There’s a good chance you’ll happen on a dead tree, too.
The culprits are record heat and an unprecedented drought, say UC Santa Barbara scientists. For millions of years, oak trees — genus Quercus — have been some of the toughest plants in nature; but even they struggle in soils that haven’t seen significant rainfall since 2011.
“It’s a very hardy, drought-tolerant tree, so it is really a measure of the depth of drought that you’re seeing this kind of dieback,” said Frank Davis, director of UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and professor at the campus’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.
Oaks aren’t the only trees suffering. Conifers — the state’s pines — are dying by the millions, especially in the southern Sierra Nevada. Bark beetles, which are thriving in the drought, have killed thousands of acres of pines with no end in sight.
The Role of Heat
Periodic droughts in California, with its Mediterranean climate, are nothing new. What sets this one apart, however, is the extreme heat. On Sept. 17 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that August 2015 was the hottest August on record, with global land surface temperatures 2.05 degrees F above the 20th century average. That kind of heat wreaks havoc on the environment.
“The state of the ecosystem in general is strongly tied to temperature,” Davis explained. “Warm the environment and it changes the water use by plants; it can change the population growth rates of insects and pathogens; it changes the rate of decomposition of organic matter; in a nutshell, it changes the metabolism of the ecosystem.”
Dar Roberts, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Geography who has done extensive research with remote sensing of weather, soil and vegetation in California, noted that the heat is only making the drought worse — and harder on the trees.
“What high temperatures mean is a lot of evaporative demand,” Roberts explained. “The atmosphere can uptake lots of water and so the plants can lose a lot of water. That means you have less water to go around and the demand for water is greater, which means the plants are under more stress than they normally would be in a drought.”
Unfortunately, he noted, we might as well get used to it. With climate change cranking up the Earth’s thermostat, he said, heat and drought could be “the new normal. Higher temperatures coupled with drought are likely going to make things worse than they have been in a long time.”
That’s bad news for the trees. The warm, dry conditions have made conifers susceptible to bark beetles, which are normally controlled by cold, snowy winters. The mountains, however, are warming faster than the lower elevations and snowpack the past three years was at the lowest levels ever recorded. “The combination of drought, which lets the beetles get started, plus warmer conditions where their populations can increase faster, lead to this eruption of beetles across the landscape and widespread pine dieback,” Davis explained. “We’re seeing that across many areas of the state now. Millions of trees.”
Dry Down Deep
For the oaks, though, the story of their decline runs deeper — up to 60 feet below ground. That’s the potential root depth of a blue oak (Q. douglasii), the most drought-tolerant of California’s oaks. Even at those depths the soil holds minimal moisture after three years of drought. “The reason you’re seeing the oaks begin to die is that it’s been this gradual drying down of the soil as we continue to not get sufficient rain,” Roberts said.
Roberts has been tracking soil moisture at varying depths through the use of soil moisture probes for several years. He’s seen increasingly dry soils at depths that, in normal seasons, would be wetter the farther down he measured.
“What we’ve found is that our deepest soil layers, the ones about 50 centimeters down, just haven’t gotten much moisture at all in four to five years,” Roberts said. “The last time they got a good soaking was 2011. So then you can imagine these trees. They have these deep roots and they’re tapping these deeper soil layers for moisture. If those layers are not getting replenished by rainfall, and these trees are perpetually drawing more moisture out of them, it’s not good for the trees.”
Not all oaks are created equally, however. Coast live oaks (Q. agrifolia), the most common on the South Coast, are evergreens with shallower roots than deciduous blue or valley oaks (Q. lobata). Both attributes make them slightly less drought-tolerant than the others. The deciduous oaks “can shed leaves in response to drought,” Davis explained. In addition, “the blue oaks are really capable of ratcheting down the water use during hot, dry conditions. They have a way of closing the pores in their leaves so there are lower rates of water loss. All of the oaks do that, but the blue oaks are particularly good at the mechanism of reducing the evaporation of tree canopy back into the atmosphere.”
Looking for El Niño
Despite those adaptations, even the blue and valley oaks are suffering diebacks. The only thing that will stop it is rain. As it happens, help might be on the way. A strong El Niño is building in the Pacific Ocean — NOAA puts the likelihood of such an event at 90 percent — and with it the hope that it could drop large amounts of rain on California as it did in 1982-83 and 1997-98.
But there are no guarantees.
“First, it is not yet as intense as the 1997-98 one,” said Joel Michaelsen, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Geography who specializes in climatology and meteorology. “There is a chance that it will continue to grow and reach a similar magnitude, but that is not at all certain. In any case, there is a better than 50-50 chance that Southern California will have a wetter than average winter.
“The outlook for Northern California, where most of the state’s water comes from, is less certain,” Michaelsen continued. “Besides, the impact of a single year, no matter how wet, will be fleeting. It could potentially improve the state’s water outlook significantly, but there will always be another drought, and rising temperatures will likely make the impact more severe.”
Long Road to Recovery
Even if a wet El Niño arrives, it might not be enough. Roberts noted the rains will be need to be “well-behaved,” dropping large amounts of precipitation and then stopping for a few days to allow the water to percolate into the soil. It will take a series of such storms to penetrate our dry soils, he said. Rain without stop will merely cause runoff and prevent deep percolation.
“If we’ve been sucking the water out of theses soils for three years, and they’re really dry now, this is a huge sponge and it’s going to take a lot of water to refill,” Roberts explained. “And the El Niño might not do it. It might get pretty far, but it may not be able to overcome three years of severe drought. It all depends on how it falls.”
Davis cautions that even perfectly timed rains won’t bring the oaks back immediately. They’re tough, but the damage is extensive. “One thing to consider is that these trees don’t rebound right away,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in days or months. It can take years because they’ve often suffered a lot of canopy dieback and they’ve suffered root dieback and they have to rebuild their root, branch and canopy systems. That may take several years before they’re back to full speed.”
The West's Wildfire Season Gets Worse
Over 7 million acres have burned so far during one of the worst droughts in decades.
A historic wildfire season in the Western United States and Canada claimed more victims last week. Three firefighters battling the Twisp Fire in central Washington State died Wednesday after their vehicle crashed and was overtaken by the flames, NBC News reported. Four other firefighters were also injured.
The three firefighters’ deaths marked a dangerous week for fire crews battling blazes throughout the West. Over 7.2 million acres have burned this year, according to the federal National Interagency Fire Center, with 1.3 million of those acres actively burning on Thursday. In the Pacific Northwest alone, wildfires grew from 85,000 acres to 625,000 acres in only a week. Canadian firefighters also struggled with blazes this summer, with over 690,000 acres burned in British Columbia as of August 4, according to the Globe and Mail.
Fire season is a difficult time for Western states in any year, but the dire lack of rainfall in recent years has exacerbated the current threat. Most news outlets refer to the crisis as “the California drought.” In fact, the drought exists in some form across the entire Western United States:
One hundred percent of the state of Nevada is in drought — with 40 percent in the extreme drought category. Over to the southeast, 93 percent of Arizona's territory is in some form of drought. Even Washington state, far to the north, finds all of its territory in drought and 32 percent of its land in extreme doubt.
Although some media outlets have focused on almonds, a much larger contributor to warming temperatures and drying landscapes is climate change. A study published in Geophysical Research Letters on Thursday estimated that climate change’s effects exacerbated the Western drought by an additional 15 to 20 percent. That same day, NOAA announced that July 2015 was the hottest month since recordkeeping began in January 1880. As climate change continues to worsen, longer and more intense droughts are likely.
Wildfires can occur year round, but they flourish in dry, hot conditions like those caused by the drought. In April, the Lake Tahoe basin, which straddles the California-Nevada border, recorded only 3 percent of its typical annual snowpack, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. Snowpack is the primary source of water for mountainous areas throughout the year; its absence has serious ecological repercussions. An aerial survey earlier this month in one part of the Sierra Nevada foothills found almost 6.3 million trees—about 20 to 30 percent of those surveyed—were dead or dying. As snowpack dwindles and temperatures rise, wildfires move into even higher elevations that rarely burned in previous fire seasons.
With so many wildfires burning across the West, state and federal resources are stretched thin. In Washington, 200 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Seattle have been activated to assist local crews. New Zealand and Australia also deployed a 70-person team to assist. California augments its 4,000 full-time firefighting personnel with 6,000 inmates from state prisons.
Another hurdle faced by the U.S. Forest Service is cost. In 1995, the agency said, about 16 percent of its budget went to fire-related costs. Now, it occupies about 52 percent of the budget, and is projected to consume two-thirds of the budget by 2025. Because federal wildfire spending comes from agency budgets, active fire seasons can deplete resources for wildfire prevention. Earlier in August, a group of Western lawmakers proposed legislation that would allow firefighting agencies to draw from natural-disaster funds instead.
The Union Democrat
Tuolumne County requests state, fed aid for trees
The scope of the tree mortality issue sweeping across the region is larger than Tuolumne County can handle on its own, the Board of Supervisors said Tuesday.
Several letters to state and federal lawmakers requesting aid to tackle the problem were unanimously approved by the board at Tuesday’s meeting. The board also renewed a local state of emergency declaring that the increasing number of dead or dying trees poses a serious risk to public safety.
“It’s important for the public to understand that the magnitude of this problem is such that the county in and of itself is never going to solve it,” said District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, adding that other public and private agencies need to take responsibility for removing the dead trees on their land.
About 77 percent of the land in Tuolumne County is owned and managed by public agencies, largely the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park.
“This is huge,” Rodefer said. “It’s going to take cooperation of all those groups out there to make it work.”
An estimated 13 million trees have died throughout the southern and central Sierra Nevada as a result of the four-year drought, according to Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.
The types of trees observed as being affected the worst by the drought include ponderosa pine, sugar pine, incense cedar and various types of oaks. Dense stands of conifers weakened by the lack of water are particularly inviting for bark beetle infestation, according to the Forest Service.
Many county residents have reported concerns about the visible increase in dead or dying trees throughout the area, especially near Twain Harte, Groveland and Tuolumne.
County leaders say the problem poses a major threat to the public due to an increased risk of large wildfires and dead trees falling into homes or critical infrastructure, such as power lines, roads and water conveyance systems.
Homeowners are also finding that removing trees from their properties can be a 5-5-15
Los costly process.
District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said he spoke with a local tree faller that estimated it would cost as much as $30,000 to remove 20 trees in close proximity to a home.
“We need to find ways to cooperate with these people so that if they can take them down, we can help them do that,” he said. “We need to streamline any process there is to make it happen.”
County Administrator Craig Pedro said a local task force formed recently to come up with ways of addressing the issue has had one meeting.
However, many of the key stakeholders involved in the process have been busy with the Butte Fire in Calaveras County, including representatives from Cal Fire, the California Office of Emergency Services and U.S. Forest Service.
Pedro said he’s met with members of the Highway 108 FireSafe Council, Yosemite Foothills FireSafe Council and Southwest Interface Team, who have expressed interest in taking a leadership role in the process.
“Anyone who takes this on as a key leadership role is going to require some staffing to do it,” he said. “When I say things like that, I’ve got to find a way to fund that. We’ve got to figure out a financial plan to go with it.”
The board approved a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown requesting support through the coordination of resources — including California Conservation Corps and prison inmate crews — as well as financial support through various state grants and funds.
Furthermore, the letter to Brown requests assistance in reducing or streamlining regulations, including requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, timber harvesting permit process and competitive bidding.
Other letters approved Tuesday addressed to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Tom McClintock also request federal aid.
Los Angeles Times
Drought kills 12 million trees in California's national forests
At least 12 million trees have died in California's forest due to drought
Rangers in the San Bernardino National Forest call them “red trees.”
Instead of the typical deep green color, large swaths of pine trees now don hues of death, their dehydrated needles turning brown and burnt-red because of the state’s worsening drought.
“Unlike back East, where you have fall colors, here it’s because the trees are dying,” said John Miller, a spokesman for the San Bernardino National Forest.
Years of extremely dry conditions are taking a heavy toll on forest lands across California and heightening the fire risk as summer approaches.
“The situation is incendiary,” William Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Times recently. “The national forest is stressed out.”
A new study by the U.S. Forest Service tried to assess the scope of the problem. Researchers estimated that the drought has killed off at least 12.5 million trees in California’s national forests during the drought.
The scientists expect the die-off to continue. “It is almost certain that millions more trees will die over the course of the upcoming summer as the drought situation continues and becomes ever more long term,” said biologist Jeffrey Moore, acting regional aerial survey program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
Moore and other researchers conducted an aerial survey of more than 8.2 million acres of forest last month.
Using a digital aerial sketch-mapping system, researchers flew in a fixed-wing aircraft about 1,000 feet above ground level and surveyed areas in the Cleveland, San Bernardino, Angeles and Los Padres national forests. Some private lands and Pinnacles National Park in Central California were also surveyed.
Researchers also examined the Tehachapi range, Stanislaus, Sierra and Sequoia national forests, as well as Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings national parks.
Researchers found 999,000 acres of dead trees, Moore said. In the Stanislaus areas, tree deaths have doubled since July.
“It’s pretty rough,” said Moore, adding that a statewide survey is planned later this year. “It is cause for concern — but there is not too much to do about it.”
The scarcity of water is not the trees’ only enemy amid the drought.
Weakened and dehydrated, many of the trees are being finished off by bark beetles — tiny brown insects that thrive in dry conditions, chewing away at pines and making them brittle.
Officials say they are seeing an uptick in bark beetles amid the drought. In the San Bernardino forest, bark beetle infestations were considered a factor in deadly fires that devoured swaths of mountainside in 2003.
The trees’ natural defense against the beetles lies in their sticky resin, said Timothy Paine, an entomologist at UC Riverside who has studied the beetles and their environment.
The water in properly hydrated trees creates pressure internally that pushes the resin out to the tree’s surface, deflecting beetles that don’t want to get caught in it, Paine said. When a tree is dried up, it can’t produce additional resin that protects it from the beetles, making a perfect opportunity for them to colonize, Paine said.
“If you have a drought, you get large numbers of trees that are susceptible,” Paine said. “The beetles build up their populations.”
The increasingly brittle trees are part of an increasingly dangerous equation — including a dwindling snowpack and warmer temperatures — that is creating extreme fire danger in the state’s forests, according to Patzert.
Traditionally, by spring, the forest is green and lush after the rainy season. But the drought and warm temperatures have taken their toll. Dead trees, parched chaparral and dried-out grass are building up in the forests, creating potential fuel for fires.
The dangerous conditions statewide have forced firefighters to augment their staffing because any small fire can explode into a devastating blaze, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
In Pinnacles National Park, officials have banned fires about six to eight weeks earlier than usual because of the “very dry conditions,” said Jan Lemons, a park spokeswoman. There, the gray pines and chaparral are dying, she said.
Scott Stephens, a fire science professor at UC Berkeley, said fire suppression and harvesting have made forests more dense over the last 100 years. The increased density has made trees more vulnerable as they compete for limited amounts of water, with the weaker trees more susceptible to bark beetle infestations, he said.
“If the drought continues for another two years or longer, I expect this mortality to move throughout the state,” Stephens said. “Forests that once burned frequently with low-moderate intensity fire regimes are the most susceptible.”
Moore, of the Forest Service, said the last time researchers saw so many trees dying was during the great drought of the 1970s. At that time, the National Park Service did not conduct aerial surveys in California, only ground reports, he said.
An estimated 14 million trees or more died between 1975 and 1979.
If the drought continues, the number of tree deaths could surpass that era, he said.
“The situation,” Moore said, “is pretty severe.”
Drought And Beetle Infestation Killing California Forests
Sacramento, CA --Aerial surveys around the state show more than 20 million dead trees so far this year. The drought has a partner in crime – the pine beetle. If this deadly combination continues it could drastically change California’s forested landscape.
To understand the impact of the drought in the Sierra Nevada forests, one need only visit Al Anderson’s 800-acre ranch in Mariposa County.
Loggers are busy cutting down dead trees on his property. Anderson says over the last two years, he’s watched his trees die.
“We took out more than 40 loads in April and May and we thought we pretty much had it," says Anderson. "Then, the day after the loggers left, we noticed more trees were dying.”
Trees are falling victim to three things right now; drought, the pine beetle, and wildfires.
Each of these stressors on its own is bad enough but together they feed on each other. That’s accelerating the pace of the die-off.
Robert Giorgi has been helping Anderson cut down the trees. He holds up a stump he cut just a few hours earlier.
“The very center of the trees are just dry, almost hollow sounding to hit, no water, they can’t fight them off,” says Giorgi.
It doesn’t help that Anderson’s property is next to the Sierra National Forest. Dead trees from a wildfire two years ago are attracting the bugs and they’re spreading onto Anderson’s property.
Anderson stands on a ridge overlooking a valley with huge swaths of dead brown trees.
“This entire ridge up here, the part that wasn’t burnt, the bugs got the rest of it,” says Anderson.
Aerial surveys by the Forest Service show more than 18 million dead trees in the Sierra forests. But there are millions more around the state.
“Mortality in our state’s forests is as bad as we’ve seen in any recent history, going back decades at least, if not recorded history.” says Matt Dias, acting executive officer with the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Dias says the board recently took the unprecedented step of relaxing rules that limit the amount of trees a landowner can remove – because all the dead trees increase the wildfire risk.
What to do with all the dead trees is another problem. Al Anderson says saw mills are backlogged.
“There’s so much supply that it’s outstripping demand," says Anderson. "The mills are full of logs because of all the fires and bug kill, and some mills won’t take any more trees at all period.”
For now, the dead trees sit in his yard wrapped in plastic until he can get a saw mill to take them.
The dead trees aren’t just a burden for landowners.
About four hours north of Anderson’s property, PG&E crews are cutting down four dead Ponderosa pine trees that threaten to take down power lines.
“Three months ago we were out here and these trees were not dead and now they are," says Jeff Mussel, vegetation program manager for PG&E. "So the amount of time that’s it’s taken for the trees to go from a healthy green appearance to ultimately dead is extremely rapid,” he says.
Mussell says watching the hillsides turn brown is devastating to witness.
Bridget Fithian with the Sierra Foothill Conservancy agrees. She says if this continues there will be no conifers left.
“It’s really, it’s like a freight train basically moving through the whole Sierra and in our lifetime we’re probably going to see a dramatic conversion of this landscape.”
Fithian says the Sierra could be transformed into a landscape that mirrors Southern California. All Al Anderson can do is watch.
“Emotionally it’s pretty difficult. This was my pride and joy. And to sit here and watch it get destroyed by a little bug is hard to take,” says Anderson.
County declares dead tree emergency
Citing the need to compel the federal government to take action soon to remove dead and dying trees from the Sierra-Nevada mountains, the Tulare County Supervisors voted Tuesday declare a state of emergency.
That emergency stems from the threat those trees pose should they catch fire.This isn’t a visible emergency, like a flood or hurricane, board Chairman Steve Worthley said during Tuesday’s weekly board meeting, “but we have an emergency. An ignition could cause a half million acres to catch fire” in the Sierras.The “last-minute” proposal was an addendum to the supervisors’ agenda that was requested by officials in Fresno, Mariposa, Madera and Tuolumne counties, which already have declared local emergencies over the number of dead and dying trees in their areas.
In April, the U.S. Forest Service conducted an areal survey of its forests and National Park Service lands in the southern Sierras to determine tree mortality, and they found that about 10.45 million trees — 20 percent of those in the 4.1 million acres surveyed — were dead or clearly dying.
Another Forest Service report reports that about 190,000 trees were dead in July 2014 in the Sequoia National Forest alone. Further research determined that most of the trees in the Sierras were dead or dying due to severe drought conditions and beetle infestations aggravated by the lack of water weakening the trees.
And the trees are continuing to dies at an increasing rate, Debbie Vaughn, a senior administrative analyst for the county, said Tuesday morning in her presentation on the supervisors.
One problem with the emergency declaration proposal brought up by state Office of Emergency Services officials was the county lacks authority to declare an emergency due to a problem occurring in the federal forests, noted Andrew Lockman, the county’s emergency services manager.
Supervisor Phil Cox also expressed concerns, noting that county officials have let federal officials know for years — well before the drought — about the need to thin trees in the Sierra forests, “and realistically, this is not our issue. The federal government needs to fix it.
“We just don’t have the jurisdiction.”
Worthley contended it is a local issue because the high amount of dry fuels resulting from so many dead trees are next to private lands that could also burn if a major fire breaks out in the federal forests.
In fact, he noted that members of the Tule River Tribe have been frustrated that they have tried to manage forests on their land to reduce fuels, but that isn’t happening much in the neighboring federal forest land.
Worthley went on to say he supported the emergency declaration, as “We have to get them them to do something. They keep ignoring us.”
“There is the benefit of having more public awareness of the issue,” by approving the declaration, added Vaughn.
“It thinks it is being proactive, but it is really acknowledging an emergency we can’t see yet,” added Supervisor Pete Vander Poel.
And fellow Supervisor Allen Ishida said this is not just a fire issue but a health issue, noting the amount of heavy smoke that rolled over parts of Tulare and Fresno County in recent weeks due to the Rough Fire, which currently is burning in the Sequoia and Sierra national forests.
Supervisor Mike Ennis didn’t attend the meeting due to a medical issue, Worthley said.
“These forest fires are the new norm,” with more big fires likely to occur in the Sierra’s in each of the next few years “unless we manage our forests,” Ishida said.
He also accused California lawmakers of not using their clout in Washington, D.C., to compel the federal government to take action to reduce potential fuels for fires in the forests here.
“Unless we get together as counties and use our clout, they are not going to listen to us one at a time.”
After Ishida, Vander Poel and Worthley expressed their support for the emergency declaration, Cox said he would follow the leads of his fellow supervisors and voted with them to approve the emergency declaration.
“We need to hold the federal government’s feet to the fire, so to speak, to take care of us,” he said.
Redding Record Searchlight
Cal Fire leaves millions in fire fees unspent
SACRAMENTO - Amid a drought that has created bone-dry conditions across much of California’s wildland area, a state fire prevention account has ended recent fiscal years with tens of millions of dollars unspent.
The money has been generated by a contentious, four-year-old fee pushed through by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats over the objections of Republicans and rural property owners. The state collected more than $300 million through June and spent about $260 million, including roughly $228 million on administration and statewide prevention activities, vegetation clearing, defensible space inspections and other programs. About $22 million went to a state tax agency to cover collection costs.
But as fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres this year, the state ended the fiscal year in June with an estimated $43 million in fee money left over.
“We made a lot of people in the Legislature take a vote on this fee that they never really liked. But then to collect the money and just sit on it, and not deploy it in ways to help make those communities safer, is just silly,” said Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives at Pacific Forest Trust, a forest protection group.
More than 800,000 property owners pay the fee, most of them $117.33 a year for each habitable structure. Property owners in parts of the foothills east of Sacramento, as well as those in communities such as Shingle Springs, Georgetown and Pollock Pines, are subject to the charge.
The money is intended to support fire prevention activities in the almost one-third of California where the state has the primary firefighting responsibility. Nearly three-quarters of the 31 million-acre area – mostly privately owned watershed, rangeland and forested areas outside city limits – presents a very high or high fire risk.
In the devastating Valley and Butte fires, state responsibility lands made up more than 80 percent of the areas burned. As of Friday, the Valley fire in Lake County had burned more than 76,000 acres, and destroyed 1,958 homes and other structures. The Butte fire in the Sierra foothills had burned 71,000 acres and destroyed 475 homes. Authorities have confirmed the deaths of four people in the Valley fire and two in the Butte fire.
Statewide since January, more than 5,300 fires have torched almost 300,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The toll would have been worse without activities and projects funded by the fire prevention fee, state officials said.
Yet officials said they have proceeded cautiously in spending the prevention fee money because they were not sure how much money the charge would bring in.
“Given the fact that it’s a relatively new fund, there’s not a long track record on receipts. We do want to maintain a prudent reserve for unforeseen circumstances,” Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said.
The fund’s reserve, however, is much higher than that of the typical special fund. The fire fund began the current fiscal year with reserves totaling more than half of the prevention money the fee produced last year. By comparison, state special funds’ total reserves averaged about one-quarter of annual revenue in 2014-15. The state’s multibillion-dollar general fund ended June with reserves of just 3.5 percent.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who sits on the budget subcommittee that oversees Cal Fire, rejected the idea that the fire fund’s large reserve reflects prudence.
“They’re hoarding it,” he said. “What for, I don’t know.”
Some have suggested the state may have one eye on the courts, where it is fighting a lawsuit filed by critics who contend the fee is an illegal tax.
In August, a Sacramento County judge elevated the case to class-action status, and a trial date is expected next year. If the state ultimately loses, the fee revenue would disappear and the state would face refunding an estimated 12,000 property owners eligible for the class.
Refunding five years of fees to landowners who filed a required protest would cost more than $7 million. Nevada County Supervisor Hank Weston, echoing a common belief, said he thinks the large balance in the fire prevention fund reflects officials’ concern the state will lose the case.
Palmer rejected that notion. “If we budgeted on the assumption we’re going to lose every lawsuit, fiscal planning for the state would come to a screeching halt,” he said.
The fee has proven to be more costly than usual to collect. About 10 percent of people initially do not pay the charge, said former lawmaker George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization, which spent $8.9 million of the fee money in the last budget year to collect the fee. The typical noncompliance rate is about 3 percent, he said.
“It really gets expensive for us when we have to chase after such a low amount,” Runner said.
Lawmakers approved the fee in June 2011, during the recession, as a way to help prevent budget cuts to Cal Fire. The fee was fair, some supporters said, because more people living in rural areas raised the state’s firefighting costs.
Elected officials soon began raising concerns about the unspent balances.
“I just don’t want money sitting there when there’s a lot of prevention to be had and an increase in the number of fires,” then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who voted for the fee, said early last year, when fires were burning around the state. “You spend the reserves during the most crucial times.”
Weston, a former Cal Fire unit chief who pays the fire prevention charge, said there’s no excuse for all of the unspent money in the fund.
“Statewide, they’re collecting $75 million (a year), during one of the worst droughts, in one of worst fire seasons, and the best thing would have been to add a bunch of inspectors. They didn’t do that,” Weston said.
“I guarantee you that the biggest bang for your buck is you do prevention. It’s not glorious. (Fighting fires) looks good on the news,” he said. “But who knows? They could reduce the threat to some homes.”
In the last budget year, nearly 150 local fire prevention councils as well as other applicants competed for fee-funded grants to clear brush, remove trees and other projects.
Organizations in Weston’s county and elsewhere applied for the money, but demand far exceeded the $9.5 million the state set aside for the purpose. Among the projects losing out were proposals by the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County to remove flammable vegetation and dead trees from around the homes of low-income senior citizens and disabled residents.
Organizations awarded local grants included fire safe councils in Lake County, which received approval in mid-March for $188,000 worth of projects to create a second evacuation route from Anderson Springs and clear vegetation in the Cobb area. The money recently became available, in the midst of the fire season, and the work had not been started before the Valley fire roared through those areas.
“It was money we wouldn’t have gotten any other way. We were just thrilled with what we were going to be able to do,” said Liz Black of the South Lake Fire Safe Council, who lives in the Jerusalem Valley and has been evacuated four times this year. “At this point I don’t know what’s going to happen” with the money.
The state cut the money available for local assistance grants this year, allocating $5 million – one-half of last year’s total. Instead, the state gave $5 million more to another department, the California Conservation Corps, which has handled some fire prevention activities in the past.
Other questions have surfaced about how the state uses the money.
This year, the administration proposed spending fee revenue to help carry out a new law meant to help protect Native American cultural resources during the environmental review process. It argued that the law affects Cal Fire’s plans for vegetation management.
Cal Fire “should not propose funding from fire prevention funds for CEQA archeological and cultural requirements,” a Senate committee report advised. The final budget paid for the law from another source.
The Legislature has allowed Cal Fire to use fee revenue to pay for litigation to recover money from people who accidentally start fires. Pursuing the cases, officials said, encourages people to be more careful and prevent fires in the state responsibility area.
Legislative attorneys, though, have warned that using the money that way likely runs afoul of Proposition 26, the 2010 voter-approved law which requires that any fee provide a direct benefit to the person paying it. Any money recovered goes into the state’s general fund, where it can be used for any purpose.
“Civil cost recovery is all about one thing – it’s about getting more money for government. That’s what the goal of the fire tax has been from the beginning,” Nielsen said. “It’s got nothing to do with prevention.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit trying to overturn the charge say such spending proves their point. They contend the fee is really a tax that should have required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, not the fee bill that passed on a majority vote.
Tim Biddle, an attorney for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, one of the plaintiffs in the case, acknowledges the fee likely is paying for some brush clearing or inspections that directly benefit the people who pay it.
But hundreds of thousands of fee-payers are not receiving such services, he said, while fee money has helped pay for such work as post-fire data analysis and public education campaigns that offer no direct benefit to state responsibility area property owners.
“If you look at how the fee has actually been expended … it clearly looks like it is being spent on services and programs that benefit the general public, not the payers,” he said.