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Editorial: All of Napa County needs to face the real threat of wildfire

Napa Valley Register Editorial Board

Napa County faces many threats, but the most immediate and pressing is how we are going to live and thrive in the era of fire.

Over the last decade, it has become progressively more clear that devastating mega-fires are a permanent part of life in the West. Napa County’s wealth and fame are no protection against the fury of these fires.

The terrifying 2015 and 2016 fire seasons in Lake County were just a preview of the horrific destruction of the Tubbs Fire and others in 2017 and the LNU Lightning Complex and Glass fires last summer.

In between those blazes, we suffered under the choking smoke clouds from fires elsewhere in the region and endured the Public Safety Power Shutoffs imposed by PG&E as a way to prevent its decrepit infrastructure from causing even more fires.

These events have called into question the future of our way of life.

“We are slowly watching the erosion of our lifestyle,” Christopher Thompson, firefighter, and head of the Napa Communities Firewise Foundation, told us this week.

We’re facing what he rightly called “an existential crossroad.” We can do something to prepare for and prevent fires or we can watch our economy wither and our population leave in search of safer places.

Thompson has been a somewhat lonely voice in recent years, warning urgently that fire was here to stay and we needed to do something to adapt and defend ourselves.

Finally, at long last, people are starting to listen. Unfortunately, it took the searing images of fire ripping through Deer Park and Lake Berryessa and burning down wineries to get everyone awakened.

Over the last three months, the Register editorial board has met with a variety of people and groups, including Thompson, elected officials and industry groups, to discuss our response to wildfire. It is part of our ongoing effort to understand the situation and to advocate for practical solutions.

We have heard two consistent themes:

Lack of money: The effort to build fire breaks, clear overgrown forests, maintain fire roads, and harden structures and infrastructure against fire requires lots of organization and manpower. That means money. And yet the county has historically put up only around $100,000 per year to fund the Firewise Councils, the local volunteer groups overseen by Thompson’s foundation. The state was stingy with grants and large public landholders, including the state parks system, lacked the money or will to manage their properties.

The vacuum of leadership: Whose problem was this? Private landowners? The state? The county? The chronically underfunded Firewise Councils? Industry groups? Nobody seemed willing or able to step up to lead.

The Napa Valley Register takes an in-depth look at Napa County's vulnerability to wildfires in this four-part series.

Now, after the horrors of 2020, we’re seeing gratifying progress on both fronts.

The Board of Supervisors will consider this spring a county-wide wildfire protection plan, prepared by the Napa Communities Firewise Foundation and local fire agencies. It will identify danger spots from one end of the county to the other, and it will define specific projects that need to be undertaken, including forest cleanup and infrastructure hardening.

That report will create a clear roadmap for preventing fires and mitigating the effect of fires that do break out.

The county is also moving to fund the Firewise Councils. The exact amount is uncertain, but it will be in the millions, rather than the $100,000 previously. The state too is kicking in more money to help local governments and property owners deal with dangerous fire conditions.

Board of Supervisors Chair Alfredo Pedroza told us that fire prevention is at the top of the county’s agenda and will remain so. State Sen. Bill Dodd said he and other legislators are pushing state agencies for funding and regulatory reforms that will assist local efforts.

Industry groups such as the Napa Valley Vintners and Farm Bureau, meanwhile, are mobilizing, creating fire-related working groups and providing board members for the Napa Communities Firewise Foundation.

And the Foundation is stepping up to be the local leader in fire prevention. With money and commitment from industry and government alike, Thompson told us, the organization can beef up its staffing and spearhead projects countywide in a way that was previously impossible.

As positive as these developments are, however, there is still far to go. Our forests remain dangerously overgrown and the burn zones are still littered with flammable debris. Our cities and rural communities are still not hardened against fire, with inadequate defensible space around structures and water systems that are prone to fire damage just when they are needed to fight flames.

And the new funding flowing into the Foundation is largely onetime money, so there is a pressing need to for a consistent and predictable funding source, such as a sales tax or a dedicated portion of the hotel-based Transient Occupancy Tax.

Even with consistent funding and strong political will, these projects will take years. Our current situation is the result of a century of poor forest management, heedless planning and development, and climate change. A problem that long in creation will not be undone quickly or cheaply.

We commend the government and industry leaders who are taking this seriously, and particularly we commend Thompson and the foundation he leads for agreeing to provide leadership.

But every Napa County resident needs to be involved, take responsibility, and hold our leaders accountable for sustaining the momentum that appears to be developing.

The future of our way of life depends on it.



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