Newsom Highlights Wildfire Prevention Efforts Amid Shrinking Federal Help

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – After escaping 2019 largely unscathed by the kind of devastating wildfires that have plagued California in recent years, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday said the state is prepared to “double-down” on prevention efforts with or without the federal government.

Newsom said the state made it through last year’s wildfire season mostly untouched despite a bitter stretch of windy and dry fall weather thanks to the “extraordinary heroism” and prevention efforts of state agencies.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks wildfires, homelessness and PG&E with Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare. (Nick Cahill / CNS)

“Last year we were remarkably fortunate; we had one of the best fire seasons we’ve had in recent memory in terms of severity,” Newsom said. “We did remarkably well because we’ve never been more prepared.”

Speaking at an event near the state Capitol, Newsom touted the state’s recent wildfire prevention efforts and said crews over the last 10 months have completed 34 emergency forest management projects and helped buffer 90,000 acres from wildfires. Newsom said the state has been forced to ramp up its efforts and help clear federal land because funding for federal wildfire agencies continues to shrink under the Trump administration.

“We are doing the job the federal government is no longer doing,” Newsom said.

A skilled public speaker, Newsom peppered the crowd of mostly state employees and reporters with personal anecdotes about his struggle getting insurance for his home in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and one involving President Donald Trump.

After touring the devastation left by the 2018 Camp Fire, Trump famously tweeted that California could do a better job on “raking and cleaning” forest floors to prevent wildfires that scientists say are largely being fueled and exaggerated by climate change.

Newsom claims the president didn’t leave his thoughts to Twitter.

“He called me personally to double-check on the raking; I thought it was a prank call,” Newsom said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

The Democratic governor stocked his recent budget proposal with wildfire prevention funding, including $200 million for fuel breaks, $100 million for home hardening, $120 million for 677 new firefighter jobs and $250 million to improve upper watershed health. He says the recent wildfires in Australia reinforced the need to prepare at home, and that agencies being equipped with new helicopters, fire engines and predictive fire forecasting technology.

In an hour-long talk hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California, Newsom touched on a variety of topics besides wildfires that recent polls have shown to be important to Californians, such as homelessness and the future of embattled Pacific Gas & Electric.

The first-term governor laid out his plan to get Californians off the street – 108,000 people were unsheltered in at last count – and promised the state won’t be solely focused on shelters, but also increasing affordable housing and supportive services. He suggested previous governors didn’t commit enough energy toward fixing society’s “ultimate failure.”

“Where the hell were we a decade ago?” Newsom asked. “We’ve never been more focused than we are now.”

Earlier this month Newsom ordered the Department of General Services to supply 100 camp trailers as temporary housing and introduced plans for a $1 billion program meant to provide housing subsidies and health for the homeless. His administration is also pushing the Legislature to expand Medi-Cal and give more homeless people access to preventative and mental health care.

“I’m the homeless czar in the state of California,” Newsom proclaimed.

Newsom did however shy away from questions about a contentious legislative proposal that would open up the way for a flood of high-density housing near California transit centers. As it did the last two years, Senate Bill 50 on Wednesday fell three votes short and stalled in the state Senate.

During over two hours of debate, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were worried that the bill could have the adverse effect of taking control over housing decisions from local governments. In the end, SB 50 author Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, was undone by a bloc of Southern California Democratic senators who voted no, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, Henry Stern, Ben Allen, Maria Elena Durazo, Holly Mitchell, Anthony Portantino and Susan Rubio.

The Senate did vote to allow Wiener’s motion for reconsideration, leaving the door open for a potential re-vote on Thursday. Newsom told reporters that regardless of whether SB 50 makes it to his desk, he wants to see “something big” get done this year on housing.

Newsom also amplified his clash with Pacific Gas & Electric on Wednesday, saying a public takeover of the massive private utility is still an option as it continues its attempt to shed billions of wildfire liability in bankruptcy. He said the state’s wildfire prevention and clean energy goals are directly tied to the performance of the utility, which has been blamed for sparking several Northern California wildfires over the last decade.

As for the utility’s post-bankruptcy makeup, Newsom has a few demands: He wants the future board to consist of at least 50% California residents, executive bonuses tied to safety performance and a new public safety division.

“PG&E, that company no longer exists. It’s going to be a new company, or the state of California takes it over,” Newsom warned.

When asked about the possibility of improving relations with the president, Newsom claims he can still find common ground with Trump on issues like wildfires, homelessness and environmental policy.

“We’ve just got to create the right conditions where politics can’t trump good policy,” Newsom said.

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