Sonoma County receives $37 million federal grant for wildfire mitigation
Ravaged by fires over the past four years, Sonoma County got a boost for future efforts to mitigate calamities Wednesday when President Joe Biden announced a $37 million FEMA grant to the county for use in wildfire prevention.
“It was a sense of relief just washing over me,” Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said of Biden’s announcement. “Being in the midst of a historic drought, with extremely low moisture levels, knowing we’re walking into a really tough wildfire season this year — this was a shot in the arm. We’re exhausted. We’ve had so many bad fire years. We were really in need of some good news.”
The federal money, the first distribution from the Biden administration’s $1 billion Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, requires a 25% local match. Sonoma County has committed $13 million it had set aside from PG&E legal settlements, to bring the total wildfire package to $50 million, though it’s unlikely the money will have a direct impact in 2021.
The FEMA grant will arrive in phases, said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma. The first phase, expected to take 18 months, will focus on building and organizing a network of local partners — “kind of orchestrating the symphony of all the parts,” Wick said, including tribal leaders, Cal Fire and vineyard owners.
Phase 2, he said, will be implementation.
The funding will ultimately be used for measures such as selective thinning of canopies, trimming undergrowth, cutting back vegetation to give emergency vehicles safe access, and the creation of shaded fuel breaks and green belts to serve as fire breaks. It will also be used to help property owners avoid personal losses.
Those varied goals capture the “inside-out, outside-in” approach that the Biden administration found innovative.
The idea is to implement “house outward” strategies such as cost-share incentives for property owners who need help creating defenses for their structures, while simultaneously addressing “wildland inward” strategies to build protective buffers around entire communities.
Hopkins believes Sonoma County’s plan can be a model for other regions, and she is eager to apply some of those “house outward” activities to her west county constituents.
“The Russian River is a socioeconomically disadvantaged community,” she said. “We’ll be providing financial assistance to homeowners who need defensible space around their house. A lot of homeowners can’t afford it. Some who were once able to do the work themselves no longer can. It’s about educating folks, and getting folks the funds they need.”
The Lower Russian River is one of three zones targeted for the first round of “inside-outside” planning in Sonoma County, along with the Mark West and Sonoma Mountain areas. The hot spots were easy to see, Wick said.
“Wildfire had identified those three areas,” he noted. “We know where it’s gone, and where it’s tried to go. During the Kincade fire, had it jumped highway, it would have rushed right down the Russian River corridor. Mark West is topographically and meteorologically built for fire; it’s why we’ve seen it there a half-dozen times in the last 100 years. And Sonoma Mountain, fire has tried multiple times to ravage Glen Ellen and get over the mountain.”
Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nichols, according to Wick, first pointed out the high level of vulnerability for those three areas. Nichols was raised in Cazadero and “knows this county like the back of his hand,” Wick said. During the inferno of the Kincade fire in 2019, Nichols entered the emergency operations bunker one night for a midnight burrito.
“Over a modest meal and a war map, he told us where fire, in his words, would be seeking its next meal,” Wick said.
That conversation informed county staff when they began to craft their plea for the infrastructure money. FEMA opened its application period for the program on Sept. 30 and closed it Jan. 29.
“We started working on it the day it opened, and got it done the day it closed,” Wick said. “And worked our butts off in between. We have fire professionals and natural resource scientists in Permit Sonoma, and they are totally committed.”
Biden made the announcement Wednesday at a White House briefing of governors from Western states. “Because Sonoma knows all too well the devastation wrought by fire, they are the first to apply for the mitigation funds,” the president said.
Reps. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, whose districts include parts of Sonoma County, both wrote letters to support the county’s application, and both expressed satisfaction at Wednesday’s announcement.
“With severe drought gripping the West, it's certain California will be up against another year of destructive wildfires,” Huffman said in a prepared statement. “We know all too well the devastating impacts these fires can have to our region, and Rep. Thompson and I have been pushing for federal support that meets this urgent need.”
FEMA wound up earmarking the full $37 million Sonoma County had requested.
“Amazing,” Hopkins reflected. “And in terms of the original funding allocation to BRIC, this is a huge amount. So we’re definitely punching above our weight for a county of a half-million people.”
County representatives were optimistic the federal government would reward their application, but neither Hopkins nor Wick had any idea Biden would announce the grant Wednesday. Wick said he was, appropriately enough, in a meeting with the county’s fire division, discussing Steve Mosiurchak’s appointment as permanent fire marshal, when a colleague broke in with the news.
“Not a bad way to start your position as permanent fire marshal,” Wick observed.
This article includes information from Staff Writer Elissa Chudwin and the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @skinny_post.