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Little Hoover Commission in 2018 had answer to reduce massive wildfires, Sacramento ignored it
PERSPECTIVE
thomas fifre
This aerial photo provided by the California Highway Patrol Golden Gate Division shows some of hundreds of homes destroyed in a wind-driven wildfire that swept through Santa Rosa on Oct. 9, 2017.

Dead trees — 130 million of them — were dotting California’s forests and wild lands in 2018.

That is a tidbit from the February 2018 Little Hoover Commission report regarding the tinderbox created by bark beetles and drought. The report noted about half of the state’s 33 million acres of forestland needed restoration to reduce the potential for massive forest fires.

The commission — an independent state oversight committee that is not beholden to either climate crazies or climate deniers — issued their report after examining the 2017 fire season.

 The 2017 fire season today looks like a piddling dumpster fire compared to the current fire season that has charred 4,267,656 million acres due to 8,320 fires to date while destroying 9,427 buildings (virtually all homes) and has killed 31 people.

At the time of the commission report, the 2017 fire season was the worst on record. There were 9,133 wildfires that burned 1,248,600 acres, killed 44 people and destroyed 9,470 structures. The acreage burned in 2017 was five times higher than the five year average from 2012 to 2016. The number of homes destroyed was more than in the previous nine fire seasons combined.

The 2018 report states “a century of fire suppression remains firmly entrenched within federal and state firefighting agencies and has left forest floors deep in flammable ground cover.”

The Little Hoover Commission also pointed out “plans for prescribed burning to rid the forests of dense ground cover often clash with regional air quality regulations, even as emissions from catastrophic wildfires nullify hard-cough carbon reduction.” The commission also noted court fights and such between environmental groups and timber concerns “hinder policy goals to thin overgrown forests to their original condition.”

The report drew heavy on fire science and environmental studies that conclude periodic fires not only help to reduce the creation of heavy fuel loads of brush, dead and dying trees, as well as thickets of young trees but also help create a safer and more vibrant ecological system.

Not allowing fires to burn — which the Forest Service allows to happen with most remote forest fires caused by lightning strikes during normal weather years — or conducting prescribed burns in areas that haven’t burned for years or is near developed areas where fuel growth accumulates setting the stage for massive conflagrations we have been experiencing in recent years.

So what do you think California actually spent on prescribed burns in 2018, the year after what was then the worst wildfire season on record in state history?

Sacramento spent $30 million from cap-and-trade revenues— the greenhouse gas tax levied against corporations that is passed onto consumers in the price of goods — to reduce fire fuel on 60,000 acres. That, by the way, is 0.4 percent of the 16.5 million acres that were identified as having extensive fuel loads making them ripe to feed massive wildfires.

Now for the fun question: How much did Sacramento in 2018 spend from cap-and-trade revenues for electric car tax credits that helped primarily boost Tesla sales? The answer is $101 million.

Yet one major wildfire can wipe out all of the gains in reducing carbon pollution in any given year. After just the Santa Clara Lightning Complex Fire that started 30 miles southeast of Manteca in the Diablo Range as well as a similar inferno near Clear Lake has blocked the sun for more than 40 days so far this year in much of the Central Valley does anyone in their right mind believe the best use of cap-and-trade funds to reduce carbon emissions is to subsidize electric car purchase?

Even if you contend electric cars are the new reality and embrace Governor Gavin Newsom’s edict to ban the sale of all new vehicles that are gas or diesel powered starting in 2035, does it make sense to divert cap-and-trade revenue as Sacramento has done to keep the high speed rail money pit to nowhere chugging along towards its $100 billion spending mark?

California’s greenhouse gas reduction program has all the makings of a Keystone Cops production.

Why are we investing $100 billion into a high speed rail project that was primarily sold as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if all new cars sold by 2035 need to be non-fossil fuel powered?

It would make more sense to take spent $100 billion instead on a direct subsidy for each and every owner of the 6.4 million registered vehicles in California today — that divvied up comes to $15,400 — when they go to buy a new vehicle as long as it is electric.

If a basic Tesla 3 sells for $40,000 today, the subsidy would make the actual cost of the car to a buyer $24,600. The state could require that they take ownership of the vehicle it is being replaced with and then destroy the car.

At the same time the same $15,400 subsidy could be used to buy a used electric vehicle making them affordable to those that can’t afford new vehicles.

Every registered owner of a gas or diesel powered vehicle could have a one-time $15,400 state subsidy waiting for them to get rid of their fossil fuel powered vehicle. All we have to do is scrap the high speed rail boondoggle.

Better yet, let’s marry green goals that are not going away with reality.

If we are keeping the 2035 date for ending all new vehicle sales of fossil fueled vehicles, let’s not waste the $100 billion on a high speed rail project that by the time it is completed by 2040 or so to connect San Francisco with Los Angeles will be rendered white elephant status in terms of reducing our carbon footprint thanks to the 2035 edict on new car sales.

Instead divert $7.5 billion into prescribed burns — the cost of addressing the 16.5 million acres in need of them in the 2018 Little Hoover Commission based on the $30 million price tag for prescribed burns for 60,000 acres.

And once the plug is pulled on high speed rail the cap-and-trade funds earmarked to help cover its annual projected operating costs can go toward maintaining a robust wild land and forest management program going forward.

Not only would it save money from the cap-and-trade accounts as well as reduce the need to plunge the state into hock for another $80 billion or so on high speed rail construction costs but it would help reduce losses from — and the costs of fighting — wildfires.

And the best part we can actually make a real sustainable dent in our carbon footprint that isn’t wiped out each year by massive wildfires.