California Officials Agree on $536 Million Wildfire Prevention Package

The budget deal between Governor Gavin Newsom and lawmakers calls for prescribed burns and home-hardening as the state preps for another intense wildfire season.

The Bond Fire, driven by high winds, burns the hillsides west of Santiago Canyon Road near Silverado Canyon, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. (Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Staring down another potentially harsh wildfire season following a miserably dry winter, California lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday announced plans to spend over $500 million thinning forests and conducting fuel breaks in fire-prone counties.

The budget deal includes $536 million for fire prevention efforts with most of the funding earmarked for vegetation management along with increasing defensible space around buildings and home-hardening programs. The deal extends the state’s rush to prepare heading into the summer as last week Newsom dipped into the state’s emergency fund for an additional $80 million to hire a surge of over 1,200 new firefighters.   

After back-to-back arid winters, California is sinking toward another drought emergency just a few years after its worst in modern history.

A critical snow survey conducted last week measured the state’s critical snowpack at just 59% of normal while the U.S. Drought Monitor pegs over 92% of the state as experiencing some degree of drought.  

Newsom and legislative leaders said the state can’t afford to waste time following a disastrous 2020 wildfire season and the building drought.

“With California facing another extremely dry year, it is critical that we get a head start on reducing our fire risk. We are doing that by investing more than half a billion dollars on projects and programs that provide improved fire prevention for all parts of California,” Newsom said in a joint statement with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins.

Officials are cramming to stave off a repeat of last year’s disastrous wildfire season.

A record 4.1 million acres burned in 2020, doubling the previous record set in 2018. A majority of the largest fires were sparked by a freak summer dry lightning storm that ignited blazes across much of Northern California. The largest of the lightning fires was the August Complex Fire which burned from August until November, becoming the state’s first to surpass 1 million acres.   

From a stretch of Fresno County forest that burned in last year’s devastating Creek Fire, Newsom on Thursday cast the wildfire spending as a necessary investment to save lives and homes from blazes fueled by climate change. The Democratic governor said he’s confident the Legislature will vote to approve the $536 million as early as next week.

If approved, the funds will be pulled from the general fund and the state’s greenhouse gas reduction program, and will become available on June 30.

Newsom, who is facing a recall vote this fall, said California must “own” the fact its forests have been neglected for decades and embrace prevention strategies like prescribed burns. He added California expects better cooperation with the Biden administration than it had under the previous four years, noting President Donald Trump routinely slashed the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting budget.

“That’s what this is all about; getting rid of those barriers. It’s not about finger pointing,” Newsom said, noting nearly 60% of California’s forests are on federal land.

Thursday’s deal was roundly applauded by Democratic state lawmakers as well as the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency. However a group of GOP lawmakers said the funds aren’t close to sufficient.  

“We need to double it,” said Republican Assemblymembers James Gallagher, Frank Bigelow and state Sen. Brian Dahle. “These fires are larger and move faster because of an enormous fuel load in our wildlands.”

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