California braces for tough wildfire season as Covid-19 pandemic causes $54-billion budget deficit

Many programs designed to safeguard communities and homes to wildfire incidents have been put on hold as the state faces a $54-billion budget deficit due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis


                            California braces for tough wildfire season as Covid-19 pandemic causes $54-billion budget deficit
(Getty Images)

The Covid-19 pandemic has dried up funds, leaving California ill-prepared to fight wildfires. Many programs designed to safeguard communities and homes from wildfire incidents have been put on hold as the state faces a $54 billion budget deficit due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis. The state has already witnessed 60% more wildfires in 2020 than last year. The fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Climate change is triggering drier weather conditions, making forests susceptible to fire events. In 2017 and 2018, California wildfires killed 147 people, burned 3.5 million acres, and destroyed over 34,000 structures.

But all the projects created to blunt the effects of wildfires are taking a backseat this year. In addition to building resistant homes, the Governor's revised budget has temporarily halted two other climate initiatives to prepare for fires, droughts, floods, and sea-level rise, according to NPR. "It's really a shame," Alexandra Syphard, a fire scientist at Sage Underwriters, a wildfire insurance company, told NPR. "Obviously Covid has been a shame on so many different levels. We were ramping up to provide what I believe is one of the most progressive and important investments in terms of fire risk that there could be," she added.

Over the last three years, California has lost more than 25,000 homes and buildings. Unlike previous years, authorities planned to fight wildfire differently this time: they planned to invest in installing fire-resistant roofing, thereby reducing the need for firefighters. Such incidents are due to embers -- high wind conditions transport small sparks kilometers away far from the fire site.  And wood roofs are susceptible to these flying embers.

Wood roofs are susceptible to fires (Getty Images)

So, in January, Governor Gavin Newsom said he would provide $100 million in state and federal money to help residents replace wood roofs with fire-resistant ones, particularly in low-income communities. But, in May, he said he had to shelve these plans due to the crumbling economy. Additionally, the state has suspended a $4.75 billion Climate Resilience Bond scheduled for the November ballot and $1 billion in state funding over five years for climate-related projects. "State lawmakers are still trying to push ahead with a bill that would put a $7 billion climate and economic recovery bond on the ballot," the NPR wrote.

"A dollar spent today saves you about six dollars in future emergencies," Kate Gordon, director of California's Office of Planning and Research, told NPR. "And if you think about that, it's really logical. The cost of emergency response is enormous," she added. The state is looking at funding from the federal government and partnership with private industry to address the issue, as reported by NPR. In May, the Governor announced an increase of funding by $170 million to boost firefighting efforts, according to Reuters. Some of the additional money will be used to hire more first responders, Newsom added.

Part of that money will help California keep up its firefighting efforts in the Covid-19 era. For instance, responders may turn school gymnasiums into evacuation centers to enable social distancing. The state might send evacuees to hotels, where conditions will be less crowded, Mark Ghilarducci, Newsom’s director of emergency services, said.

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