More California forests stand to benefit from the United States Forest Service’s wildfire prevention strategy.
The 10-year plan — pushed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service — intends to reduce wildfire risks and promote forest health in areas that pose risk to harming communities if they caught fire.
Now in its second year, the Wildfire Crisis Strategy connects the agency with community-based and governmental organizations in much of the West to identify and protect such landscapes where fires would threaten communities, areas called “firesheds.”
Six of the 11 areas receiving assistance this year are in California, including the Klamath River Basin, where the McKinney Fire ignited this summer. The McKinney Fire was California’s deadliest of 2022.
This adds to the 10 landscapes the Forest Service announced would receive aid last year, two of which were in California. The aid per area continues for five years.
In all, the Department of Agriculture has invested $930 million across 45 million acres.
In a call with reporters on Thursday, Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the projects span 134 of the 250 firesheds identified in the department’s 10-year plan. He said it will lessen risk to around 200 communities.
“It is no longer a matter of if a wildfire will threaten many western communities in these landscapes,” Vilsack said. “It is a matter of when and where.”
What areas will receive aid?
California endured a light wildfire season in 2022 compared to prior years. Less than 364,000 acres burned, according to CAL FIRE. More than 2.3 million acres burned on average in the previous five years, the agency reported.
The areas receiving Forest Service aid were selected based on potential for fires to affect nearby communities “with a focus on protecting underserved communities, critical infrastructure, public water sources and Tribal lands,” according to a Department of Agriculture release.
Vilsack said on the call with reporters that the agency also considered more than 3,000 comments from a dozen round-table meetings in 2022 with project partners, governmental organizations and other stakeholders.
Overall, the agency’s strategy aims to bolster resilience against wildfires on up to 20 million acres on national forests and grasslands and up to 30 million acres on other federal, state, tribal, private and family lands.
How does the Forest Service treat firesheds?
There are three main treatments that the Forest Service uses to prevent catastrophic fires: prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and hazard removal. Respectively, they mean to start a controlled fire, create space by taking down trees in a pattern, and remove dried brush that acts as kindling. All aim to protect healthy trees while eliminating inflammable substances.
The Department of Agriculture is also looking at reforestation and restoration efforts to help areas recover from fires. Vilsack said part of this was to protect large, old trees, and would be done in consideration of nearby communities and tribal governments.
All treatments are meant to be worked on with local partners and communities, per the Forest Service.
Where does funding come from?
Initial money for the Forest Service’s program comes through two sweeping spending packages pushed by the Biden administration: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Beyond these projects, the Inflation Reduction Act passed this summer will put $1.8 billion toward reducing hazardous fuels that easily ignite on national forests and grasslands.
Both spending packages were heralded through an entirely Democratic Congress; the administration might have more difficulty with injecting climate investments into large bills while Republicans control the House. The GOP has already said it would explore ways to curb government spending.
The Department of Agriculture’s 10-year plan came out of an executive order President Joe Biden signed in the first week that he took office to prioritize climate issues. Biden, who is in California this Thursday to assess damage done by recent floods and storms, vowed in 2021 to aid California in its fight against ongoing wildfire issues. In a trip that fall, he called the situation a “blinking code red” for climate change.
At the end of 2022, Biden signed several wildfire prevention and mitigation laws championed by California officials.
The 21 new projects
Here are the 11 new landscapes that the Department of Agriculture announced it is aiding on Thursday, adding up to $490 million:
- San Carlos Apache Tribal Forest Protection Project in Arizona, 3 million acres
- Plumas Community Protection in California, 285,000 acres
- Southern California Fireshed Risk Reduction Strategy in California, 4 million acres
- Trinity Forest Health and Fire Resilience Rural Communities in California, 910,000 acres
- Nez Perce-Clearwater-Lower Salmon in Idaho, 1.5 million acres
- Mount Hood Forest Health and Fire-Resilient Communities in Oregon, 1 million acres
- Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California, 10 million acres
- Sierra and Elko Fronts in Nevada and California, 3.4 million acres
- Pine Valley in Utah, 402,000 acres
- Wasatch Landscape Project in Utah, 1.3 million acres
- Colville Northeast Washington Vision in Washington, 1.6 million acres
And the 10 named last year:
- 4FRI in Arizona, 2.4 million acres
- Prescott in Arizona, 401,000 acres
- North Yuba in California, 313,000 acres
- Stanislaus in California, 245,000 acres
- Colorado Front Range in Colorado, 3.5 million acres
- Southwest Idaho in Idaho, 1.72 million acres
- Kootenai Complex in Montana, 800,000 acres
- Enchanted Circle in New Mexico, 1.5 million acres
- Central Oregon in Oregon, 2.6 million acres
- Central Washington Initiative in Washington, 2.45 million acres