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Wildfire Resilience in California with Chuck Bonham

Audio by: Wangyuxuan Xu | Writing by: Marie Hogan, Amanda Neslund, Alexandra Jade Garcia  | Socials by: Sofia Del Priore

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), formerly the California Department of Fish and Game, is focused on  “improving and enhancing [its] capacity and effectiveness in fulfilling [its] public trust responsibilities for protecting and managing the state’s fish and wildlife.” Chuck Bonham has served as the director of CDFW since 2011. Bonham is responsible for overseeing CDFW’s wide range of projects from preventing illegal poaching to protecting California’s wildlife from human and environmental conflicts such as drought and fires.  

Nearly all of California’s landscapes are naturally fire-dependent or fire-adapted, and this beneficial relationship with fire allows ecosystems to maintain healthy function and promotes biodiversity. However, high-intensity wildfires disrupt this relationship and cause detrimental damage to these ecosystems as wildfires impact tree regeneration, soil erosion, and water quality. Such high-intensity wildfires also impact wildlife as many cannot move and thus die in the fires. Animals that can out escape the fires, such as mammals running and amphibians burrowing into the ground, are then tasked with adapting to new and changing environments. There is minimal data on wildlife casualties from wildfires, but there has been a dramatic increase in the number of wildlife treated by vets and zoos across California after severe wildfires. In 2021, the Wildlife Disaster Network through UC Davis’s Veterinary Emergency Response Team cared for more than 2000 injured wildlife and pets during the fire season. 

In 2021, Governor Newsom signed SB 85 the $536 million Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan into law to support early action and intervention against wildfires and measures to build resilient communities, restore ecological health, and fund wildfire suppression. As part of that effort,  CDFW undertook “the largest wildfire protection and resilience efforts in its history.” This new support has helped not only safeguard CDFW property, but better protection of surrounding homes, communities, and wildlife habitats as well. SB 85 also allowed CFDW to hire additional staff, afford new equipment, and start over forty new fire control projects such as creating fire breaks, removing wildfire fuel, thinning overgrown vegetation, expanding livestock grazing, and more. 

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) in their 2022 Fire Season Outlook predicts a longer wildfire season this year, due to climate change and extended dry periods from the beginning of the year. Wildfire season begins in May and is in July through October in California, and this year so far CAL FIRE reported 3,311 incidents of wildfires resulting in 21,343 acres burnt. The predicted intensity of this year’s wildfire season makes the work of the CDFW even more critical as their efforts protect the health of California’s ecological reserves, wildlife, waterways, and communities from the devastating effects of wildfires. 

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Transcript:

Bonham: The cascading extreme events from climate change are playing out in wildfire. We’re burning faster, more intense, and this snowball rolling downhill seems to be getting so big, so fast, we’re overwhelmed 

Ethan: Chuck Bonham is the Director of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. As climate change increases wildfire severity, Bonham says adequate funding to maintain and restore natural and working lands as a buffer against climate impacts is key. California offers an example through the one million acres his department manages.  

Bonham: About a year ago, Governor Newsome signed his wildfire forest and resilience early action package. We got an immediate $15 million, and a lot more since. We’ve been able to turn that around and we’re treating like 20 or 30,000 acres a year across all kinds of properties.

Bonham: We own an ecological reserve in Eldorado county. We’ve been working with Cal fire to thin dense stands of Manzanita and create a fire break around nearby roadway. If you go out to the Santa Rosa plain Vernal pool, we’ve been working with mowing firebreaks along the boundaries around the ecological reserve, basically in the urban area. And if we manage our land better for fire resiliency, we’re producing an extended benefit for those very at-risk communities – which can be climate laboratories, but also climate risks if they’re not handled well. 

Ethan: To learn more about California’s wildfire resilience efforts and hear our full interview with Chuck Bonham, visit climatebreak.org. 

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