Wildfires and Watersheds in the Time of COVID - CivicWell

Wildfires and Watersheds in the Time of COVID

Livable Places Update



October 30, 2020

California is simultaneously in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the second-worst megadrought in the past 1,200 years.[1]

This convergence is exacerbating the drought-fire-flood cycle: Drying of vegetation from drought creates more fuel for fires. Fire then leads to erosion of lands that would otherwise handle stormwater during flood events. After the fire, stormwater runoff then pollutes and drastically impairs water supplies. In a post-fire landscape, vegetation crucial for groundwater recharge can take as long as five years to regrow.

These wildfire effects on California’s watersheds[2] also have devastating community and economic consequences. Furthermore, a pause during the pandemic on forest-management approaches, which would otherwise curb wildfire disaster, increases our vulnerability and leaves many Californians in a heightened state of anxiety.

Figure 1: Source: Global Forest Watch, Fires and the Climate Feedback Loop. The rising temperatures lead to drier forest conditions. As a results the areas become a tinderbox that can easily become ignited by people or lightning. Emissions from fires increase carbon into the atmosphere leading to the rise in temperatures and the cycle continues.

The devastating toll of California wildfires

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they are a good place to start. This year, we’ve already seen 4.2 million acres burned, with more than 9,300 buildings destroyed and 31 fatalities with 14 major fires/complexes still burning, including the August Complex – now the largest recorded fire in state history with more than one-million acres burned. This follows two years of some of the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfires. Five of the top 10 largest fires in California history have struck this year. In 2017-18, wildfires killed 147 people, burned 3.5 million acres and destroyed more than 34,000 structures.

With over 4.5 million homes and 11 million people living or working in the wildland-urban interface, combating this danger is crucial to California’s future.

In addition to the damage to lives, land and buildings, wildfires expose watershed regions – crucial to the state’s water supply and our rural communities – to increased risk. The topography of California’s headwater regions makes them especially susceptible to erosion after wildfires.

COVID impacts on watershed management

In California state forests, controlled burns are an effective approach to wildfire mitigation, but were called off due to COVID-19 in an effort to decrease smoke exposure to communities and decrease spread of virus among firefighters. These forests contain more than one-half of the Sierra headwaters, the state’s primary source of water.[3]

While the pandemic has temporarily led to overall reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, these gains may be rendered negligible by the increased risk of wildfire devastation. In 2018, wildfire released nine times the greenhouse gas emissions (45 million metric tons of CO₂) than were reduced by the state.[4]

According to Governor Newsom, the pandemic has placed California in a $54 billion deficit. Unemployment rates shot up from 3.8% in February to 11% in September. The Governor’s Budget includes $85.6 million in Cal Fire’s fire protection and capacity, and new investments in wildfire prevention and mitigation.[5] There is $117.6 million for the Office of Emergency services for emergency preparedness and response including enhanced wildfire forecasting.[6]

Figure 2: Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, visits with California National Guard members supporting civil authorities fighting the wildfires, near Santa Cruz, California, Sept. 3, 2020

Policy implications and opportunities

Emergency response during the pandemic: The state is currently pursuing changes to overall emergency preparedness and best practices.[7] Where evacuation is necessary, there is more focus on providing clear air spaces and shelters that are accommodating for COVID-19 measures. COVID affects the ability and willingness of fire crews to bring on additional workforce, which requires further health and safety measures, and increases everyone’s risk of potential exposure to the virus.[8] Firefighters are encouraged to take extra precautions by physically distancing, holding briefings remotely, and following strategic scheduling methods to minimize risk of spread.[9]

Managing our forests: State efforts should focus attention to high-priority forest health projects that sequester carbon and reduce wildfire risk. Thinning at least 1 million acres of forested land annually for 10 years is critical to managing wildfire disasters.[10] Forest management and thinning will reduce fire risk and GHG emissions, and also protect water quality by mitigating sediment and debris, and reduce the cost of future wildfire response. Increased investment in forest management and restoration will directly enhance California’s water supply availability and reliability;[11] the state relies on the fire-prone Southern Cascade/Sierra Nevada region for more than 60% of its water supply.[12]

Jobs where they’re most needed: Forest management and wildfire-response training opens the door for job programs and pathways, especially essential in rural mountain counties, which suffer higher levels of un- and under- employment – which also happen to be the same communities most at risk to wildfire.[13] When the unemployment rate is especially high (such as now, as a result of COVID), local economies previously dependent on tourism and hospitality must pivot. This is an excellent opportunity for regional investment in upper watershed communities for forestry and wildfire workforce development programs that will directly benefit downstream users.

Figure 3: Courtesy of Atley Keller. The forest fire feedback cycle, amplified by COVID.

Regional collaboration: The situation also presents opportunities for regional coordination of entities already collaborating through Integrated Regional Water Management Groups. At the state level, aligning regulatory requirements, bundling funding streams, and coordinating eligibility requirements can be powerful incentives for local interests to work together. Key to implementing opportunities for greater resilience, local governments (and the state government) have recently shown extreme flexibility and adaptability.

Funding opportunities: One model, the Department of Conservation Watershed Coordinator program, provides funds for watershed collaboration and facilitation to promote integrated water management. While focused on watersheds affected by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, it promotes across scales and sectors.

State impetus: The Water Resilience Portfolio, released on July 28, 2020, highlights the need for forest and watershed enhancement through coordinator programs, resource conservation districts and other regional-coordination groups (Priority 15.1).[14] The portfolio calls for aligning climate scenarios, expanding watershed-scale coordination, and targeting investments that contribute to water resilience (Priority 20.1).[15]

Figure 4: Courtesy of Bob Dass, two firefighters look out for remaining fire activity near Borax Lake.

Models that bring it together

Santa Ana Watershed – Forest First Program

Forest First, which seeks to increase the health and resilience of forests and headwater areas within the Santa Ana watershed, includes downstream stakeholders who are invested in the health of the upper watershed. The partnership quantified the economic benefits of proposed forest-management actions (Valuation of Economic Benefits of Forest Management Practices in the Santa Ana Watershed, 2012). The Integrated Regional Water Management group funded tree thinning downstream of Lake Arrowhead through Prop 84 funds, and is a model for other forested watersheds to coordinate efforts among upper-watershed and downstream users.

Central Valley Forest Corps

Reedley College, the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board and the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission – Local Conservation Corps have partnered to provide free vocational training for young adults to become firefighters and fuel-reduction experts. Funded by CAL Fire, the joint effort focuses on creating job opportunities throughout the Central Valley and Sierra mountain regions.

Break the cycle

Wildfire and watershed management are critical and inextricably connected issues that need to be addressed through integrated policy and infrastructure investments to break the drought-fire-flood cycle. State and local governments should take decisive action now to address this increasing risk for our communities.


  1. Study: CA and West suffering worst ‘megadrought’ in centuries
  2. (PPIC) – pulled from in-line citation; need to get full citation
  3. How Is the Pandemic Affecting Wildfire Preparedness?
  4. https://www.kpbs.org/news/2019/oct/08/wildfires-cutting-greenhouse-gas-reductions/
  5. Governor Newsom Signs 2020 Budget Act
  6. Department of Finance’s Enacted Budget Summary
  7. COVID-19, Wildfires, and Indoor Air Quality | US EPA
  8. https://www.nwcg.gov/sites/default/files/docs/eb-fmb-m-20-008a.pdf
  9. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/us/california-wildfires-coronavirus.html?auth=login-google
  10. California Water Resilience Portfolio 2020
  11. California Water Resilience Portfolio 2020
  12. The Benefits of Headwater Forest Management
  13. https://cafwd.org/reporting/entry/californias-wildfire-crisis-new-call-to-action-report-urges-swift-massive-r
  14. Estimating the WATER SUPPLY BENEFITS from Forest Restoration in the Northern Sierra Nevada
  15. California Water Resilience Portfolio 2020