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Statement from Mike Sweeney, Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy California Chapter on California Wildfires

San Francisco, CA

“California wildfires are again tragically in the news. The fires burning across our state have taken lives, homes and livelihoods. Our hearts go out to all those affected and to the firefighters who are working tirelessly to contain the blazes.

Governor Brown got it right when he called this the new “abnormal” for California. It’s a tragic cycle we must do everything to break.  The problem will not go away on its own. At the root of wildfires is climate change, which is leading to extreme weather and warmer, drier conditions -- in forests and in the vegetation around our homes. It’s a wicked combination causing fires to behave differently and unexpectedly. 

The problem of wildfires in California is a complicated one, without a single solution. Here are three critical things we can and are doing to reduce the risks.

First, in our forests, we must reduce the unhealthy build up of brush and small trees so that when fires inevitably occur there is less fuel to burn and they are less intense.  This will require significant public funding, and California is leading the way with its recent $1 billion commitment to improve forest health over the next five years. Congress also recently passed necessary legislation at the federal level to free up US Forest Service funds to focus on forest health as it was intended, rather than fire fighting. Fire fighting is now properly paid for from disaster funding.

Second, we must ask hard questions in the face of these fires—such as, does it make sense to build and rebuild in places most at risk of repeated wildfires? Rather than defaulting to reinvestment in areas of high fire risk, we need new solutions—such as buy-out programs—that enable people to move and rebuild their lives out of harm’s way. For communities that have already been established in high-risk fire areas, we must recognize that fire risk has increased, and make those homes and communities a whole lot tougher.

And third, we need to rapidly and transparently investigate the risks of power lines in sparking fires, recognizing an interplay between wildfires, power supplies and extreme weather. New approaches are needed, such as considering alternatives to overhead wires, especially in high risk zones, and modernizing the construction and operation of power lines to account for a changing climate.

The fires raging in California are tragic, and every year they get worse.  Let’s stop making history and start fixing the problem.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.