(NewsNation Now) — Officials are taking major steps to get ahead of this summer’s wildfire season after historic fires set the west coast ablaze through July and August of last year.
More than 8.7 million acres – an area larger than the state of Maryland – burned across the U.S. in 2020 during the worst wildfire season in 70 years.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders said Thursday they will authorize a massive $536 million in spending for wildfire mitigation and forest management projects before the worst of the fire season strikes later this year.
That more than doubles $200 million in recent annual spending, advocates said, after wildfire preparedness grants were dropped entirely last year when the state prematurely anticipated a pandemic-driven budget shortfall.
“With California facing another extremely dry year, it is critical that we get a head start on reducing our fire risk,” Newsom and his fellow Democrats who lead the Assembly and Senate said in a joint statement.
They’re rushing to thin forests, build fuel breaks around vulnerable communities and allow for planned burns before a dry winter turns into a tinder-dry summer. Last year’s record-setting wildfire season charred more than 4% of the state while destroying nearly 10,500 buildings and killing 33 people.
“A $500 million appropriation would be huge and they’ll need to do substantially more than that again for next year,” said Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives at the Pacific Forest Trust, a nonprofit land trust and think-tank that promotes forest conservation. “It will need to be in the billions.”
Mason said Democratic President Joe Biden’s new administration should also invest more in forest projects, given how much forest land is federally-owned.
Colorado fire officials and Gov. Jared Polis also announced their 2021 wildfire season mitigation plan Thursday, planning to fight fires earlier with more funds and resources on the ground after an unprecedented 2020 season.
“In 2021, we have already experienced fires. One of the things that is a change of paradigm is Colorado used to talk about a fire season. It’s now a year-round phenomena,” Polis said.
Colorado’s 2020 summer and fall included three of the largest fires in state history and an extended season which lasted well into October, burning more than 935 square miles, according to experts.
The new approach to combatting and mitigating wildfires across the state will be an “aggressive initial attack,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
By allocating resources to local governments sooner, they hope to lessen a fire’s impact by shortening the length of time its burning.
Several bills passed in the Colorado Legislature set aside millions of dollars for wildfire mitigation including funds for more aviation tools and the extension of several contracts for air tankers and helicopters used to fight fires from above.
Throughout the Southwest, extreme drought and lack of precipitation are contributing to higher and more severe wildfire risks, with reports suggesting the risk could begin to rise as soon as May if there isn’t enough precipitation in April.
Polis said the state’s growing population will also lead to an increasing number of people affected by wildfires over time because of more people moving into the wildland interface and more people using outdoor areas for recreation.
“Just as it took us a century to create the fire problems we have right now, it’s going to take us many years to restore resilience to the forest landscape in California,” Mason said.
Officials also encouraged the public to take their role seriously in preventing wildfires as the season ramps up, citing cigarettes, campfires and fireworks as past causes of major fires..
“On average across the country, human-caused wildfires make up 87% of wildfire occurrences every year. Most of these fires can be prevented,” Hilkey said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.