California has a new tool in its efforts to build wildfire resilience and improve long-term forest management in the face of climate change.
The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection has certified a new program that will help minimize wildland fire risk across the state while ensuring the highest level of environmental oversight. The California Vegetation Treatment Program (CalVTP) will create efficiencies within the regulatory process to scale up fuel treatment and forest restoration projects toward meeting the state’s goal of treating 500,000 acres of non-federal lands annually.
“I commend the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection for working with the environmental community, state regulators and public safety officials to develop a long-term solution to increase the pace and scale of critical vegetation treatment in a way that safely and responsibly protects our environment,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “The scale of the wildfire crisis in California is unprecedented, and we need a response to match the scale and severity of this challenge.”
Improved vegetation treatments, including fuel breaks that slow wildfires to protect communities, and projects that restore natural fire regimes, are part of a suite of actions Governor Newsom called for within days of assuming office earlier this year. Other priority actions include hardening homes and improving communities’ preparation to survive wildfire.
The CalVTP reflects more than a decade of careful work to analyze potential environmental impacts associated with different types of vegetation management, consistent with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This programmatic analysis will reduce redundancies in each project’s environmental review by allowing project sponsors to build upon verified environmental analysis contained in the CalVTP as they begin their site-specific study for their individual projects.
Earlier this year, citing extreme peril posed by megafires, Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency to fast-track 35 critical forest-management projects to protect more than 200 of California’s highest-risk communities and redirected National Guard members from the border to undertake fire prevention activities throughout the state. To ensure necessary work could get underway immediately, the emergency proclamation suspended certain requirements and regulations as needed to carry out its directives, including CEQA.
By expediting the process, these emergency projects are on track to finish in less than one year, rather than a typical pace of three to five years. In November, two of these emergency fuel breaks were used to protect Santa Barbara residents during the wind-driven Cave Fire, resulting in no lives or structures lost.
As part of the long-term solution, CAL FIRE developed the CalVTP to enable projects to move forward efficiently while maintaining and protecting California’s diverse vegetation and habitats. The program will help CAL FIRE, and other public agencies comply with CEQA while delivering projects more quickly and affordably on over 20 million acres of land that is the responsibility of the state. Projects that will benefit from CalVTP include:
- Wildland-Urban Interface fuel reduction, including removal of vegetation to prevent or slow the spread of fires between wildlands and buildings.
- Fuel breaks that support fire suppression activities by providing emergency responders with strategic staging areas and access to otherwise remote landscapes for fire control.
- Restoration in ecosystems where natural fire regimes have been altered due to fire exclusion, including restoring ecological processes, conditions, and resiliency to more closely reflect historic vegetative composition, structure, and habitat values.
The CalVTP does not support commercial timber harvest or development.
To further achieve wildfire resilience in California, the state continues to work with federal partners, including the U.S. Forest Service. The federal government owns nearly 58 percent of California’s forestlands. The state owns 3 percent, while 40 percent is privately held.
To protect public safety and ecology, experts agree 1 million acres of California forest and wildlands must be treated annually across jurisdictions. The federal government is working to match the state’s 500,000-acre annual treatment goals, though it has been hampered by years of federal budget and staffing cuts.
While the CalVTP is a critical tool to responsibly scale up vegetation treatment on state- and privately-owned land, efforts must simultaneously scale up on federal land.
Governor Newsom has made wildfire prevention and mitigation a top priority since taking office. The Governor included $1 billion in additional funding in the state budget to enhance our state’s preparedness and expand our capacity to respond to emergencies. The budget included funding for 13 new fire engines. He also:
- Invested $127.2 million to expand CAL FIRE’S fleet with C-130 air tankers and modified Black Hawk helicopters for nighttime firefighting operations,
- Signed an executive order authorizing the surge of almost 400 seasonal firefightersto CAL FIRE this year,
- Began overdue modernization of California’s 9-1-1 system,
- Supporting local fire operations, including $2 million for the Butte County Fire Department to maintain its current level of service and continue operation of one year-round fire station through its cooperative agreement with CAL FIRE,
- Partnered with the federal government to secure state access to remote sensor-based technology to detect wildfire ignitions, including securing delegation of authority from the Secretary of Defense to fly infrared equipped Unmanned Aerial System in support of CAL FIRE missions,
- Invested $210 million Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for forest health and fire prevention projects and programs to enable CAL FIRE to complete more fuel reduction projects and increase the pace and scale of fire prevention,
- Developed and implemented the Forestry Corps Program, to operate four Forestry Corps crews that will undertake forest health and hazardous fuel reduction projects in areas of high fire risk.
- Signed AB 38 by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa), which develops best practices for community-wide resilience against wildfires through home hardening, defensible space, and other measures.
- During his State of the State Address, the Governor announced the creation of a Strike Force to develop a comprehensive strategy within 60 days to address the destabilizing effects of catastrophic wildfires on California’s energy future.