Monday, August 21, 2023
Testimony urges House action on wildfire dangers
When the 2017 Tubbs Fire beared down on his vineyards, sixth-generation Napa Valley winegrape grower Johnnie White battled the blaze with the St. Helena Fire Department.
In addition to growing winegrapes and raising cattle that provide grazing for wildfire fuel reduction, White is a 20-year veteran of the fire department. As a farmer and firefighter, he saw up close the devastation the Tubbs Fire and other fires have caused to the North Coast wine region’s communities and agricultural properties.
White testified last week before the House Committee on Natural Resources at an oversight hearing held in Yosemite National Park to discuss wildfires and forest health. He spoke about the consequences of the fires on rural communities and outlined steps that can be taken to minimize risks in the future.
“Wildfires greatly impact California’s $50 billion agriculture industry,” White said in his committee testimony. “In addition to being a significant public safety threat, our industry continues to witness damage and destruction to our livestock, commodities, farms, ranches, wineries, farm homes, employee housing and equipment.”
Alongside White, witnesses at the Yosemite hearing, titled “Conservation in a Crown Jewel,” included Butte County rancher Dave Daley of the California Cattlemen’s Association as well as other stakeholders, experts and elected officials.
“It is up to us to correct the mistakes we have made and begin anew to conserve our nation’s bountiful lands and resources by striking the right balance among corrective actions, our current needs and our obligations to future generations,” Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-AR, said in an opening statement.
For many people impacted by wildfires, White testified, the challenges do not end when the flames are extinguished.
“Frequent wildfire has also created many residual impacts for California’s farmers and ranchers,” he said. For farmers such as White who live or work in areas impacted by wildfires, an inability to access property insurance has compounded the challenges they already faced.
“Many farm and ranch insurance policies have been terminated due to wildfire risk,” White said. “While a few policies have been retained, they come with much higher premiums.”
After one wildfire, a California farmer reported their insurance premium increased from $8,000 to $36,000, White said in a statement prepared for the hearing.
The inability to insure agricultural properties has especially impacted farmers in Southern California and in Napa, Sonoma, El Dorado, Calaveras, Placer, Nevada, Shasta, Trinity, Mendocino, San Benito, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties.
For some farmers, the lack of affordable insurance can make running a business no longer viable. To continue farming and providing food for people across the country, “farmers and ranchers need insurance options,” White said.
The California Farm Bureau worked to get state legislation passed to improve insurance options for farmers excluded from the private insurance sector due to wildfire risk.
However, long-term solutions are needed, White said, after “recent announcements by insurance companies halting coverage in California due to rapid growth of catastrophic exposure” to wildfires.
Earlier this year, State Farm and Allstate announced they had stopped accepting new applications for home insurance in California, with State Farm alone accounting for roughly 20% of current homeowners’ insurance policies.
White, who serves on the board of the Farm Bureau, testified that “while only a few companies have made public announcements,” the organization is aware of at least 22 companies that are no longer writing insurance policies in the state.
White also testified about the challenges California farmers have faced as a result of smoke and ash.
“Fires have covered California’s premier wine-, fruit- and vegetable-producing regions in extended blankets of smoke and ash resulting in severe smoke taint to winegrapes and ash contamination to fruits and vegetables,” he said. “In 2020, following the Glass Fire and LNU Lightening Complex Fire, over 25% of my operation’s winegrapes were rejected and left unharvested due to smoke taint.”
To address wildfire risks, White urged the federal government, which manages 18 National Forests in California, to consider multiple solutions.
He encouraged Congress to create an exemption from Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would enable greater use of prescribed burns to reduce wildfire fuels in overstocked forests.
White also advised the government to promote partnerships to assist the U.S. Forest Service in removing vegetation. Those partnerships, he said, should involve private industry, trained foresters and ranchers. The government, he added, should recognize and use livestock grazing as a forest management tool.
“Farmers and ranchers have a vested interest in the quality and quantity of forest management activities,” he said. “However, with nearly half of the hundred million acres in California managed by the federal government, private landowners are unable to slowly increase the pace and scale of forest management.”
The Napa Valley farmer also spoke about the need to use the 2023 Farm Bill to incentivize private businesses to remove wildfire fuels, which include low-value wood materials that can be expensive to transport out of forests and bring to market. There is also a need, he said, to develop markets for these materials.
White also advised the House committee that reducing wildfire fuels in forests would be aided by expanding the amount of acreage that is eligible for hazardous fuels reduction and insect and disease treatment.
“The reality is we are playing catch-up with a situation that has been worsening for decades exacerbated by drought, disease and even climate change,” he said in a statement prepared for the hearing. “Collectively and collaboratively, we must remain committed to finding solutions to change fire behavior and achieve fire-resilient landscapes for the sake of our natural resources and rural economies.”
Sources: Ag Alert