Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel | How to Protect Against Wildfires

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Hiking around the Santa Clarita region for decades has shown me that we need to keep our trails safe. Our trails face all sorts of threats, including irresponsible use and increased traffic, but the last 15 years have brought arguably the most harmful threat we’ve ever seen — out-of-control mega wildfires. 

Fortunately, we have proven solutions to reduce severe wildfires, but we need the California Legislature to act now and pass an emergency budget that funds wildfire preparedness programs. 

The severe wildfires in our region have taken a huge toll since 2013 — 406 structures have been destroyed, 249,495 total acres have burned, and three people have died, and we’ve all felt the effects. I’ve prepared to evacuate my home four times because of a wildfire threat. Yet, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I had my car packed but never had to actually flee, and I haven’t had my home or any property burn down. Too many Californians can’t say the same. 

In 2009, when the Station Fire broke out, I was hiking with a friend on the Arroyo Seco Trail. We had no idea that we were even near a fire. We started smelling smoke, and above us, on the top of the canyon, we saw flames. Quickly we had to evacuate the trail. We were lucky to be rescued by firefighters who saw my car parked at the trailhead, and if we’d continued down the canyon, we probably would not have been able to escape. 

After last year’s devastating wildfire season, wildfire smoke now accounts for half of all fine-particle pollution in the western United States. At the state-wide level, more than 1,000 Californians died from health complications related to wildfire smoke during a single 40-day period in 2020.  

Wildfires haven’t always been this way. From decades of scientific research, we know that fire is an essential and natural part of California’s landscape, but after more than a century of putting out all fires and logging our state’s most fire-resilient, large trees, we’ve created conditions for the more severe and destructive wildfires we’re seeing every year. But we have proven solutions to return balance to California’s wildlands that I love so dearly, and with proper funding from the California Legislature, we can kick off projects that will keep our communities safe.  

We need our elected leaders to invest in fire-resilience projects like home hardening to make buildings and homes less vulnerable to wildfire thinning of smaller dense trees, and prescribed burning in our forested areas. We also need to fund programs that create better emergency notification and evacuation systems, fire and disaster response planning, and infrastructure.  

Our state elected officials need to act immediately to defend our communities, our environment, and lives, especially with the next wildfire season so quickly approaching. I’m calling on the California Legislature to come together and pass an emergency funding package for wildfire relief and forest resilience. 

Given how little rain and snow has fallen in 2020-2021, this year’s wildfire season may well be terribly destructive, and we can’t afford to wait. 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is the executive director and president of the Community Hiking Club, and is a long-time Newhall resident.

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