Some say California towns ruined by wildfire shouldn’t rebuild. That’s insulting and wrong

Paul Kitagaki Jr./pkitagaki@sacbee.com

One year after the Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California history, our small Plumas County community of Greenville stands resilient. Despite the devastating loss of much of the town, residents and small businesses have banded together to rebuild even as some question whether we should do so.

Given the modern reality of catastrophic wildfires in California, experts, journalists and others are debating the reasoning and relative value of rebuilding fire-ravaged rural communities in wildfire-prone areas. Based on the costs of rebuilding, the size of rural populations and even broad assumptions about the political affiliations of their residents, the arguments against rebuilding reflect an offensive and severe underestimation of the value of rural California.

Over 80% of U.S. Forest Service land in the state and most of our treasured national parks lie within rural California, attracting tourism from across the nation and world. Our rural regions contain vital watersheds, electrical and water infrastructure, and agricultural commodities that supply critical resources far beyond their localities.

Opinion

Providing these valuable goods and services requires a local workforce. Rural communities serve as that workforce, preserving the environment and maintaining important industries to the benefit of all Californians.

Additionally, the cost of living in rural areas is often much lower than in other parts of the state. If destroyed communities aren’t rebuilt, many rural residents will be forced to look beyond the state for affordable living situations. This would drain rural California of skilled workers.

It is also a faulty notion that rebuilt communities in wildfire-prone areas are bound to just burn again. Catastrophic wildfires have emerged not just because of the onset of climate change but also due to decades of forest mismanagement leading to an abundance of overgrowth.

Forest health projects such as prescribed burns have been proven to mitigate and even stop the progression of mega-fires and protect communities, as the Caldor Fire demonstrated most recently. Fuel reduction projects conducted years before the incident were credited with protecting the communities of Christmas Valley and Meyers. Such projects can vastly diminish the wildfire risk to rebuilt communities.

The threat of disaster is not limited to rural communities. Many California communities, both rural and urban, are at high risk, be it from flooding, earthquakes or fire. The cost of cleanup and rebuilding after such events is invariably high, and there would be few places left to live in California if we were to abandon any community where the potential for disaster was present.

The mismanagement and overgrowth of our forests evolved over nearly a hundred years and, coupled with a changing climate, created the threat of mega-fires now faced in many parts of the state. It will take a long-term state and federal spending on sustainable forest management to adequately mitigate the risk to our environment and communities. Recent investments by the state and federal governments have acknowledged this need but left much more to be done.

The importance and necessity of managing our forests and rebuilding our fire-ravaged communities must not be underestimated. Rural California communities play a critical role in the protection and provision of resources and services enjoyed by people throughout the state.

Kevin Goss is a Plumas County supervisor and delegate to the Rural County Representatives of California.