SANTA ROSA, CA. — The death toll has risen to 42 in the massive fires that raged through Santa Rosa, Napa and Sonoma over the past week – and a new report says California can expect more of these megafires in the years to come.
Researchers from the National Wildlife Federation noted that in parts of California, fire season is now 50 days longer than it was in 1979, and predicted that some areas will start to see year-round fire seasons. Howard Penn, executive director at the nonprofit Conservation and Planning League, said suburban sprawl has led millions of Californians to move into areas at high risk for fire.
“We’re having more structures and more lives lost in these types of wildfires because we have more growth into the wildfire areas,” Penn said. “We need to be more strategic and more thoughtful about how we grow and how we build in those areas – or not build in those areas.”
The report also blamed dry conditions linked to climate change and called for more funding for prescribed burns to clear out the excess dry brush that grew after last year’s unusually wet winter.
Shannon Heyck-Williams, a climate and energy policy adviser for the National Wildlife Federation, said Congress needs to designate a special disaster fund for megafires just as we do for hurricanes – because right now the Forest Service is forced to fight them by raiding funds meant for recreation, forest restoration and wildlife management.
“Wildfires are demanding a huge amount of resources to try and keep under control,” Heyck-Williams said. “The U.S. Forest Service is spending about $1 billion a year fighting blazes, which is over half the agency’s budget, and that number is growing quickly.”
The report found that more than 8.5 million acres have burned in the United States so far this year, and the area burned annually in the Southwest has increased by 1,200 percent over the past 40 years.