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California Aims To Add Housing Away From Wildland Urban Interface


And so Kirk there raised a lot of difficult questions about these fires, and I want to bring in someone who is responsible for answering them. It is Wade Crowfoot. He is California's secretary for Natural Resources. Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us this morning.

WADE CROWFOOT: Thanks, David.

GREENE: Let me ask you about one thing we just heard about, this question of where to live. I mean, I think about the town of Paradise, Calif. - nearly 14,000 homes destroyed in 2018, 85 people killed, the same area threatened yet again this year. I mean, what are you doing to, as Kirk just mentioned, create some sort of disincentive for people to build in places that are so vulnerable?

CROWFOOT: Yeah. Well, I think at first, it's just an acknowledgement that in a place like California, with so much forest and just beautiful nature, naturally speaking, a lot of our folks live at what are called - what's called the wild urban - wildland-urban interface, or the WUI. Fully almost a quarter of Californians live on that border. And so this can be suburban Los Angeles, or it can be a forested town, like you say, in Paradise.

There's a good conversation about really where California grows. We know California needs to build more housing. We're very focused on ensuring or sort of driving that housing in urban areas, where transportation already exists, where jobs already exist. However, locals, the counties and the cities typically have the land use authority to really define the growth in their cities.

So I think the point is well made that there needs to be more coordination, more thought to avoiding the just - concentrating the growth in these areas. And that conversation is evolving, but there's certainly no silver-bullet solution yet.

GREENE: Is it evolving quickly enough? I mean, we're seeing - I mean, this is an unbelievable year for fires. What are you doing to ramp up those conversations?

CROWFOOT: Well, they're very active right now, you know, in California. We're a state of 40 million people. The growth that - a lot of the growth that we're seeing as it relates to housing development is in cities, is in established urban centers. And our Legislature and governor, Governor Newsom, have probably spent more time on the question of wildfires in the last two legislative sessions than every - any other single issue. So absolutely, the focus and the urgency are there.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about this question of forest treatment - I mean, controlled fires, thinning the forests out. Did California wait too long to prioritize that?

CROWFOOT: I - you know, I think the correspondent is correct. It's been a hundred years of, you know, some misguided policy that's led to these conditions.

Interestingly, California's tribal communities, prior to European settlement, introduced a lot of prescribed fire on the land. And those tribal communities were actually legally prohibited from that type of forest management for well over a century. The reality now is that we understand that's incredibly healthy. And so that is being - that's really - that prescribed fire, that forest management has been reintroduced over the last several years.

Since Governor Newsom took office two years ago, we've greatly increased funding for that and then actually recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to vastly increase our forest management, both state efforts and federal efforts to treat over a million acres a year in the forest, based on environmental principles but really focused on community safety as well.

GREENE: Well, let me turn to climate change. I mean, you made some news this week confronting President Trump on his visit here, saying there has to be a reckoning on climate change. But beyond wanting the president and his allies to acknowledge what the science clearly tells us, what actions do you need from the federal government in this arena to prevent these fires from getting just bigger and more destructive?

CROWFOOT: Yeah. Well, we wanted to be very clear that, you know, while we appreciate the support of FEMA and the other federal agencies, it's very important for the federal government to acknowledge just the challenge we face given these climate-driven catastrophic wildfires. August was just - yes, last month was the hottest August on record. We've had exploding temperatures - over 120 degrees in parts of Los Angeles, increasing winter, summer temperatures - a perfect storm of conditions.

And so what we need from the federal government is, frankly, more investment in that forest management. In California, 57% of our forests are actually owned and managed by federal agencies. And over the last few years, our state has spent more money on that sort of forest management than the federal government. So one is investment there.

But then two is leadership and partnership actually addressing carbon pollution. You know, we're very proud in California to help lead the world on transitioning to clean energy and a clean economy.

GREENE: Wade Crowfoot is the secretary for Natural Resources in California. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

CROWFOOT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.