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State receives $70.4 million for post-Rim Fire resilience
rim fire update pic
The 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest burned nearly 371 square miles one of the largest wildfires in California history and cost $81 million to fight. - photo by Journal file photo

California is hoping a $70.4 million grant will help prevent wildfires with the likes of the Rim Fire—which scorched approximately 400 square miles of land in Tuolumne County nearly three years ago—from dealing another devastating blow to the region and ultimately the state.

The state was one of 13 recipients to receive funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition. With this funding, California plans to pilot its Community and Watershed Resilience Program in Tuolumne County.

“The National Disaster Resilience Competition demonstrated where we are moving as a country, embracing resilience as a way to build a better future,” said Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation. “The communities awarded funding through the Competition—and in fact all those that competed—today have a greater awareness of their vulnerabilities and strengths and what they need to do to be ready for whatever comes their way. This is the heart of resilience.”

Prior to awarding the $70.4 million grant, HUC took into consideration long-term resilience commitments made by the state, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s Executive Order B-30-15, which established a 2030 greenhouse gas emission reduction target and multi-part resilience program, the State’s Integrated Climate Adaption and Resilience Program, which was established to serve as a clearinghouse for information on local and regional climate adaptation and resilience, and state legislation to increase procurement from renewable resources from 33 to 50 percent and require local governments to address climate change in their General Plan.

The Watershed Resilience Program will focus on supporting forest and watershed health, developing a bioenergy and wood products facility, and a community resilience center, which will create a long-term economically and environmentally sustainable program that can be replicated throughout the state.

By focusing on forest and watershed health, the program will help the state support healthy, resilient forests through restoration, reforestation, strategic forest thinning, biomass removal and other science-based investments to ensure ecosystem health.

Also included in the program is an integrated bioenergy and wood products facility, which will provide clean power, cooling and heating, and a site to utilize biomass material removed from the impacted disaster area. The facility will also serve as the Rim Fire recovery area and act as a regional site to accept thinned biomass from Tuolumne and surrounding counties.

As the third component, common resilience centers will serve the needs of rural communities during emergencies, while also providing year-round education and job-training opportunities to support forest and watershed work in the biomass facility.

“Each of these pillars and activities will build resilience individually, but implemented together they create and economically- and environmentally sustainable model for community and watershed resilience that reduces the risk of fire and supports local economic development,” the proposal states.

As the leading agency, the California Department of Housing and Community Development will partner with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, California Environmental Protection Agency, Columbia College, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools, Tuolumne County and the United States Forest Service for this endeavor.

The Rim Fire, which burned through more than 250,000 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest over the course of two months in 2013, was not the only wildfire in recent years to decimate already drought-stressed forests throughout California. Last year alone, three large wildfires—Butte Fire, Valley Fire, Rough Fire—destroyed nearly 300,000 acres.

The prevalence of wildfires is not unique to California, but an issue faced by the entire nation. In 2015, wildfire numbers from the National Interagency Fire Center showed that a record-breaking 10.1 million acres were burned across the United States, which surpassed the previous record set in 2006 at 9.9 million acres. Last year also signified the first time on record that the nation exceeded the 10 million acre mark.

More than 50 fires nationwide burned upwards of 50,000 acres each; of those, 20 fires exceeded more than 10,000 acres each. In total, more than 4,500 homes and other structures were destroyed and a total of 13 firefighters, including seven U.S. Forest Service firefighters, lost their lives.