CA wildfire readiness, prevention efforts called into question

Photo of Berkeley hills
Celine Bellegarda/File
CapRadio and NPR experts are questioning California's readiness in light of the upcoming fire season after California Gov. Newsom exaggerated a 2019 wildfire readiness executive order impact.

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As California approaches wildfire season following a record-breaking season last year, experts at CapRadio and National Public Radio, or NPR, as well as researchers at UC Berkeley and Next 10, a nonprofit think tank, called the state’s wildfire readiness and preparation into question.

An investigation from CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom found that California Gov. Gavin Newsom overstated the impact of a 2019 wildfire readiness executive order. While Newsom claimed that 90,000 acres of land had been treated by Cal Fire as a result of 35 “priority projects,” the investigation pointed out that the state’s data shows merely 11,399 acres as the real number.

Bill Stewart, campus forestry specialist, explained that while Cal Fire did project analysis on 90,000 acres, it only ended up treating a small strip of it as it is “very expensive to do land management” through the state government.

Stewart added that government initiatives involve several agencies’ collaboration, often leading to less efficient progress. Agencies with different focuses such as animals, water or air can clash with fire-risk efforts, leading to compromises that, according to Stewart, would not be an issue within the private sector. 

A report by researchers on campus and Next 10 looked beyond just the upcoming fire season, according to Molly Harris, a candidate in UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design’s Master of City Planning program. Harris said the current policy and funding landscape in California regarding wildfires does very little to adapt to fire risk and acknowledge affected communities.

“The current policy … focuses on recovery rather than mitigation and prevention,” Harris said. “Greater steps can be taken to protect that kind of development.”

In exploring rebuilding scenarios and alternatives, the study encouraged infill development, which focuses on developing existing unused land and is often more resistant to wildfires, preventing residents from moving too far.

Stewart added that land use planning is largely a county issue, as the state has not gotten heavily involved in land planning regarding fire-risk mitigation.

“More state funding could help cities like Berkeley to accelerate our efforts to be prepared and prevent wildfires,” said City Councilmember Sophie Hahn in an email.

Hahn said the city has prioritized efforts to improve vegetation and management, including thinning, limbing-up and clearing ladder fuels at John Hinkel Park, which had been overgrown.

She added that Measure FF, which passed in November 2020, will provide $8.5 million annually for public safety and fire prevention programs, allowing the city to reach out to private property owners as well. While the Berkeley Hills remain the most prone to wildfires, according to Hahn, areas that are farther from the fire line remain at risk of burning.

“Fire is a major threat to the entire city,” Hahn said in the email. “Both Councilmember Wengraf and I are actively engaged with the fire department to implement a variety of measures to reduce fire risks, increase early notification and plan and practice for evacuations.”

Contact Mimia Ousilas at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @mimiaousilas.