California’s Wildfire Crisis is a Rallying Cry for Help. Let’s Answer the Call.

As I wrote this piece, I glanced outside and saw what so many other Californians saw on the morning of August 18: an orange sun, a greyscale sky, and an endless cloud of ash particles. This is all the compelling evidence anyone in our state needs to conclude that we have a serious problem…again.

For over a month now the Dixie Fire has raged, ravaging nearly 700,000 acres of forestland. Meanwhile, many of us witnessed the coverage of the fast-moving Caldor Fire and the subsequent evacuations of Pollock Pines and Kyburz. This is California in 2021, but you could just as easily change the names of the wildfires and the communities and select a previous year, and the story would be the same.

For decades these forested landscapes have provided a sustainable economic foundation which has built communities and brought pride to rural California. Our forests are the source of all the ecosystem benefits that many take for granted – the water, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and abundant recreational opportunities millions enjoy. All of these are now threatened.

California’s forestry sector, comprised of family-owned companies that maintain deep roots in rural California communities, is facing daunting challenges. These companies maintain the highest forest management standards in the world given the strict regulatory environment that governs California’s timber industry. However, all that work, that close adherence to state laws and regulations is literally going up in smoke.

Our member companies are now considering the future of their carefully planned long term management, as they are confronted with making hard decisions given the risk now inherent in managing their lands. The unfortunate consequence, should timber companies shut down, is thousands of jobs would be lost, further exacerbating the economic tribulations many rural communities face.

But that’s not all.

Without a forest products industry the joint state and federal goal of treating a million acres in California annually through forest thinning to achieve fire prevention goals will fail. Our industry can assist by manufacturing products generated from the trees harvested from fire prevention activities and, thus, create jobs, promote forest resiliency, and provide forest products for local markets.  

While we face this uncertain future, there is still time to change course.

Let’s start with highly regulated forest management activities on private forestlands. This intricate regulatory scheme is accompanied by elevated commitments of time and, consequently, higher costs. Landowner incentives, such as cost share programs, streamlined permitting mechanisms, or other regulatory relief to support forest management activities for wildfire preparedness must be boldly considered by the State Legislature and the Governor, as well as the federal government.

We also need a consistent approach to fire suppression, whether suppression responsibility lies with our state or federal partners. From our perspective, all fires must be immediately suppressed during ‘wildfire season.’ Too many forested landscapes in California are not actively managed, resulting in fuel loads so high that any fire not immediately suppressed could be catastrophic. Lands that do not receive intensive management strategies or fuel reduction place everyone at risk. Our industry takes the stewardship of its forestlands seriously, but all forest landowners must do the same.

Finally, another policy matter for state leaders to consider is that of insurance. Timber companies cannot secure insurance coverage for their forestlands, meaning the resources they work to cultivate and manage over decades is lost when wildfires strike.   

The forestry sector faces challenges, but the work we do is critical to sustaining rural economies and communities, which are indelibly linked to our industry. We’re not giving up. At the same time, our partners at the state and federal level need to come to the table and work with us in solving these complex policy matters.

Matt Dias is the President and CEO of the California Forestry Association (Calforests) and a Registered Professional Forester.