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Farm Bureau Releases Fire Policy and Legislative Recommendations

Napa County Farm Bureau — The recent wildfires in Napa County have had a dramatic impact on the way we live and work and have once again demonstrated the need for better fire prevention practices to mitigate the impact subsequent fires have in our region.

The Napa County Farm Bureau has consistently addressed this issue for the last two years and recently developed strategic and substantive legislative policy recommendations as a way to create meaningful change in the way we approach fire prevention in Napa County. The Napa County Farm Bureau partnered with UC Cooperative Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and presented a Fire Prevention and Policy Workshop with elected leaders, community leaders and the public and developed specific proposals for lawmakers, which are restated below.

The devastating effects of the recent fires have created urgency to increase our understanding of vegetation dynamics, fuels management and policies that can help communities in their fire prevention efforts.

As these recommendations reflect the concerns of our members and residents in general, the County of Napa is already implementing a number of these suggestions and we look forward to continuing to work with the county on these issues.

The Napa County Farm Bureau’s ongoing fire prevention policy work has covered topics on post-fire recovery and management of natural lands, fire behavior, vegetation management tools and options, financial incentives and grant programs for vegetation management, historic land-use patterns and changes, and current policies that affect fire prevention strategies.

The content presented in our presentations has been broad, tailored to local situations, and inspired constructive conversations on wildland fire issues.

Our last public policy workshop concluded with a facilitated brainstorming session to solicit input and ideas on fire safe planning, strategizing, implementation and policy directions.

The following is a summary of the brainstorming session outcomes and suggested directions for policy makers at the county and state levels to consider in helping communities create more fire-safe regions. Again, these suggestions reflect the concerns of our members who desire to appropriately address them and we applaud the County of Napa for already implementing a number of suggestions.

The content can be categorized into four themes: Goals, Strategies, Values and Actions.

Goals

Our policy work has clearly identified three goals meant to provide guidance to Napa County, its residents and policymakers over the next ten to twenty years. The first goal encompasses the most frequently repeated comments during our presentations.

Goal 1. Expand information sharing, communications and education of the importance of wildland fire prevention, practices and community strategies. Education activities (in communities and in schools), communications and general community awareness about wildfire issues were identified as areas of concern.

Goal 2. Have communities, especially those in high-risk areas, fully engaged in wildfire prevention awareness, activities and information sharing. Absentee landownership, which can be common in Napa County, exacerbates the difficulty in engaging people on wildfire issues. An opportunity exists for the County of Napa, cities, Cal Fire and fire safe councils to collectively explore incentives to encourage community participation and engagement and develop effective communication networks that include social media tools.

Goal 3. One of the most important and paramount goals is to develop and implement strategic wildfire fuel reduction plans that reduce potential harm to life and property from wildfires and balance ecosystem and conservation priorities. Fuel reduction plans should apply the most appropriate and feasible vegetation management practices, including prescribed burning, livestock grazing, mechanical methods, herbicides and other recommended practices.

Strategies

Strategy 1, Education and Information Sharing. Education and information sharing was an important identified strategy to increase awareness of wildfire issues, exchange ideas on practices and strategies, and strengthen community / neighborly connections. Members and the public have suggested that fire safe tours be organized for residents to visit properties and communities with implemented fire safe practices, much like a peer-to-peer exchange. Tours and other activities, such as information seminars, can be informational and build neighborhood and community networks around fire safe and other community issues.

Our policy work has indicated a need for general educational seminars around historical ecology and the role of fire and natural processes in the Napa Valley ecosystem. Written material can be mailed to rural landowners (in moderate/severe wildfire zones) included in their property tax bills or similar mailers since absentee landowners are often the hardest to reach.

Strategy 2, Financial Assistance. A common suggestion was the need for more financial assistance to better enable fuel reduction and fire prevention practices. Fire safe councils are able to solicit grant funds, but often lack time and expertise among its active members to write grant proposals and administer grant-funded projects.

Strategy 3, Property and Community Planning. Several suggestions have been proposed to improve wildfire planning on individual properties and on a community level. These suggestions ranged from activities that provide property owners assistance to County-enforced regulation of fuels management.

Wildfire risk assessment and risk reduction are two suggestions that have been proposed. A need was identified for Cal Fire to expand its current risk assessments, focused on structures, to include broader vegetation / fuel management assessments for property owners. The recent fires revealed the need for wildfire fuel management beyond the defensible space guidelines, especially in high-wind wildfire events that can carry embers hundreds of feet. Strategic vegetation management on a broader scale can slow wildfire intensity and speed, saving lives and improving firefighters’ ability to combat a fire. Another suggestion has been for relevant County departments to actively work with communities in developing long-term strategic fire safe plans that address wildfire prevention and disaster preparedness.

A creative idea has been suggested for property owners to brand or promote their properties as “fire safe” or “fire ready” much like agricultural operations are branded for elements of sustainability. A branded program would require a certifying body with developed standards and practices for wildfire readiness, something that currently does not exist in Napa County. A branded program could raise awareness of the importance of wildfire preparedness and promote the implementation of fire prevention and preparedness practice.

Values

When engaging members and the public, we have asked members and residents to discuss and provide values they are trying to maintain or change, with respect to wildfire issues. The discussions on values have revealed underlying principles that guide approaches to addressing wildfire issues.

An overarching theme of values has been expressed around non-regulatory government assistance and incentives to organize and empower landowners and communities to implement fire safe practices. Many residents have shared the view that fire safe councils provide real benefits to their communities, but need more support to achieve the their goals in engaging more community members, developing broader strategic plans, and coordinating activities and plans with other agencies and groups.

A strong sense of community and shared responsibility in addressing fire safe issues has been another explicitly expressed value. The idea that “We are in it together” has made the point that communities can only be successful on fire safe issues if all community members assume their share of responsibility in making their properties safer for themselves, their neighbors and their community.

Considerable discussion has proliferated around competing values that participants felt impede the implementation of fire safe practices. Other values, such as conservation, environmental protection, and air quality are important to society, but have perpetuated policies and land management decisions that prevent effective wildfire prevention practices and may exacerbate wildland fire severity.

The policy most often cited as a hindrance to wildfire prevention is the strict air quality enforcement that severely limits prescribed burning for vegetation management and bans the burning of brush or pruning piles. Members and residents have felt that the risks to life, health, and property presented by uncontrolled wildfires are much greater to society than risks presented by prescribed burns that reduce wildfire incidences and severity.

These discussions have included the issue of maintaining un-managed “wild” areas for conservation or environmental protection purposes and the increased wildfire risk these areas present to adjacent landowner and communities due to accumulated wildfire fuels. Rather than dismissing conservation and environmental protection values, there has been a strong desire to find more balance or common ground between these and fire prevention values with an eye towards more strategic planning based on the degree of environmental value and the degree of wildfire risk.

Actions

We have routinely asked members and the public to propose actions and policies that state and local policy makers can make to facilitate fire risk reduction practices. Since many of the suggested policies and actions are addressed in preceding sections, a bulleted list of action items is used to limit redundancy.

• The Napa County Board of Supervisors should regularly re-visit fire safe issues to ensure goals and policies remain relevant and progress is realized.

●Re-assess state regulations regarding prescribed burning for vegetation management

• Develop a well-researched case or position that advances the needs for more aggressive vegetation management utilizing prescribed fire, livestock grazing and mechanical methods.

• Road improvements are needed to improve vehicular movement during emergencies and to remove vegetation hazards along roadways. Better road signage is needed to inform residence of fire escape routes.

• Identify areas of high wildfire risk, using Cal Fire maps, and create mechanisms to ensure landowners are informed of the risk, just as landowners are informed of the right to farm ordinance. This may require the training of realtors so that wildfire risk information and resources are communicated to new landowners.

• Develop a fire safe program or certification that can be used to communicate fire prevention and preparedness of properties to insurance companies for lower rates.

• Create incentives (streamlined permitting, subsidies, etc.) for homeowners in high-risk areas to upgrade facilities with fire resistant materials and design.

— A recent report from the Little Hoover Commission titled “Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada” will support this effort.

–A National Academy of Sciences publication titled “Long-term perspective on wildfires in the western USA” will also support this effort

• Develop a strategic approach with State lawmakers and air quality regulators in finding more balance between the needs of fire safe communities and public health.

–A 2017 research article provides evidence that wildfire emissions create a greater public health hazard compared to emissions from prescribed burning.

–A 2018 research article describes the public health impact on adults from wildfire smoke exposure in 2015 in 8 California air basins.

• Lastly, the County can advance fire safe efforts by writing press releases of fire safe work and success stories happening in the communities

The Napa County Farm Bureau will continue to undertake these issues as a top priority in order to mitigate the impacts that subsequent fires will have in the region. Our region has been devastated by recent events and we anticipate that these targeted policy recommendations will make substantial impacts to the way we address wildland fires in the future.

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