Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today joined with California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott as part of the state's Wildfire Awareness Week, focusing on urban community preparedness and plans to mitigate the risks facing the drought-plagued state at the outset of an expected severe wildfire season.
Today's event falls on the same day as the Obama Administration's release of the Third National Climate Assessment, the most comprehensive scientific assessment ever generated of climate change and its impacts across every region of America and major sectors of the U.S. economy. The report, a major commitment in the President's Climate Action Plan, found that in the western U.S., increasing frequency of large wildfires and longer wildfire durations are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt. Fire models project more wildfire and increased risk to communities across extensive areas in the future.
"With climate change leading to longer and more intense wildland fire seasons, the dangers to urban areas -- not to mention the costs of fighting those fires -- increase substantially," said Jewell. "It is imperative that home and business owners and communities, especially those in wildland-urban interface areas like San Diego, work together to take Firewise actions and reduce their exposure and risk to wildfire losses."
As the 2014 wildfire season begins, portions of Southern California will see significant fire potential in May, a threat that expands to most of the area in June, July and August. Severe precipitation deficits, following the driest December through February period on record, have left the area in drought despite the recent rainfall. Conditions in Northern California are similarly severe but lag two to four weeks behind Southern California. Nationally, fire season lengths have increased by 60-80 days over the last three decades and annual acreages burned have more than doubled to over 7 million acres annually.
Jewell, Laird and Pimlott urged residents to take defensible actions that can help keep communities and the firefighters safe, including clearing brush, trees, and flammable materials around homes, and working with their communities to build defensible common spaces.
"As we move into another summer of this historic drought, Californians must do all they can to prepare for wildfires," said California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird. "The dry conditions have led to increased fire activity across the state. By creating defensible space around your home and having a wildfire action plan for your family, you can give your household the best chance of surviving a wildfire."
"This year, it's even more critical that the public help us by doing their part to prevent fires before they start," said Ken Pimlott, director of CAL FIRE. "We have worked very closely with our federal partners on a comprehensive campaign to educate the public on steps they can take to prevent fires from starting in the first place. We are encouraging everyone to visit www.PreventWildfireCA.org to learn how."
According to a Congressionally-mandated report issued last week, the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service are projected to spend $1.8 billion fighting fires this year, approximately $470 million more than is budgeted. If the fire season is as costly as the report predicts, federal agencies will be forced to take funding out of other critical programs that increase the long-term resistance of public lands and National Forests to wildfire. Both Departments have had to divert funds from other programs to fund firefighting efforts for 7 of the last 12 years.
President Obama's Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposes to change how fire suppression costs are budgeted to treat the requirements of extreme fire seasons in the same way as other emergency disaster needs. Modeled on the current disaster cap that funds FEMA and disaster programs, the Obama budget request includes a cap adjustment to fund the most severe fires. This would allow for a balanced suppression and proactive fuels management and restoration program, with flexibility to accommodate peak fire seasons, but not at the cost of other Interior and Agriculture missions or by adding to the deficit.
Reducing risks from wildfire requires coordinated efforts at all levels of government, Jewell noted. The recently completed National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy provides a strategic roadmap for working together -- across federal, tribal, state and local governments and with NGO partners -- to manage fire-prone lands; protect the nation's natural, tribal and cultural resources; and make communities safe and resilient for future generations.