How much money to prevent wildfires?

A prescribed burn in 2019. Photo courtesy of Lenya Quinn-Davidson, University of California Cooperative Extension/Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association
A prescribed burn in 2019. Photo courtesy of Lenya Quinn-Davidson, University of California Cooperative Extension/Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association

$1 billion

Efforts to address wildfires would receive only 20% of the funds raised via Prop. 30, but there’s plenty of ways to spend the money. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that if approved, the proposition would likely increase wildfire response by $700 million, to about $1 billion a year. 

That’s on top of the new state budget that provides a one-time allocation of nearly $1 billion from the general fund for wildfire-related activities.

Living with wildfires requires big money in California: The state has spent as much as $4 billion a year to fight wildfires, depending on the severity of the fire season. Most of that comes from the state’s emergency fund.

Critical to understanding how this new money might be used is to make clear the distinction between two parts of the proposition: allocating funds for “response” and funds for “prevention.”

$26 million

The per-unit cost of a new generation of firefighting helicopters. Response generally means suppressing fires that have already ignited. In California, that means employing the largest civilian fleet of water and retardant-dropping aircraft in the world, spinning up choppers and calling in scores of bulldozers, water trucks and nearly 8,000 firefighters and support personnel.

State officials could choose to allocate the new funds to purchase more equipment that helps put out fires. Or Cal Fire could hire more personnel, an effort already underway. The state could also choose to use some of the money to better support Cal Fire’s behavioral health unit to address what fire officials have called a mental health crisis among hard-pressed first responders.

$582 million

The current state budget allocates $582 million over three years for projects that either seek to prevent fires or boost the resiliency of forests to withstand blazes. 

It’s a big chunk of the prevention piece, where researchers argue the bulk of the new money should go — doing what we can to prevent fires from starting and minimizing the size and destructive capacity of those that do. 

The general term for this method of fire prevention is fuels treatment, and this approach, too, is pricey and difficult to manage. Generally, the money could be spent removing things that burn — trees and brush. To make an impact, that would have to happen on a large scale. So-called mechanical thinning, removing vegetation by hand or with machines, is effective, but also expensive and time consuming.

More efficient and cost-effective are prescribed burns, carefully planned and executed small fires, whose low intensity removes the more flammable plants and small trees, preserving large trees and leaving a healthier and less vulnerable landscape.

There are political, bureaucratic and societal reasons that more prescribed burns aren’t undertaken. And, as California remains in the grip of a devastating drought, there’s also an ever-narrowing window to safely set trees on fire.

For a variety of reasons, California is not emphasizing fuels-reduction activities. Cal Fire has conducted fuels reduction projects on only 4,000 acres since July, and cleared more than 97,000 acres in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Its much-touted agreement with the U.S. Forest Service pledging to collectively “treat” one millon acres in the state by 2025 has not come close to getting there.

Should Prop. 30 free-up unexpected funds to address wildfires, it will be up to Cal Fire and state officials to determine how to prioritize the spending. And, the only sure thing to know about fire in California is that it won’t be nearly enough.

For the record: An earlier version of this story understated the number of acres covered by Cal Fire fuel reduction projects. 

40%

…give or take. That’s the share of the discretionary spending in the state budget that is required by law to fund K-12 education. The actual amount varies from year to year and depends on a formula that very few Californians actually understand

But the money raised by Prop. 30 would be exempt from that requirement. That’s why the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest union of educators, opposes the measure, which it says would “set a dangerous precedent.”