Newsom Inks $536 Million Wildfire Package as Drought Explodes Across California

California will spend hundreds of millions on prescribed burns and other tactics ahead of what experts fear will be another summer of megafires for the Golden State.

Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Drought-riddled California will spend over $500 million in the coming months cutting fuel breaks, lighting prescribed burns and conducting other wildfire prevention tactics under legislation signed Tuesday by Governor Gavin Newsom.

The Democratic governor said the $536 million budget deal is the first of many preventative steps he will authorize with the Golden State careening toward another expected brutal wildfire season.   

“This is just a down payment, this just gets the ball rolling,” Newsom said in a press conference. “This by no stretch of the imagination is the final word on the state of California’s efforts to lean into this wildfire season.”

The deal negotiated between Newsom and the Democratic-controlled Legislature commits $283 million to forest health projects including planned burns, and $198 million toward fuel breaks and programs to reduce fire risk near communities and other critical infrastructure. Another over $25 million is earmarked for home-hardening programs and defensible space inspectors to deploy to the state’s high-risk areas.

Californians are on edge following a 2020 wildfire season that saw a record-breaking 4.1 million acres burned. The disastrous summer was highlighted by a series of August wildfires ignited by dry lightning, including a blaze on federal land that ultimately charred 1 million acres in Northern California. 

With fires touching every corner of the state, California spent an estimated $9 billion dousing over 10,000 wildfires last year. In another ominous indicator, the state so far has seen twice the number of incidents compared to last year at this time.

Meanwhile an abnormally arid winter is also priming the statewide anxiety level as the state’s voluminous forests and foothills are already browning, and its lake levels disappearing weeks and months earlier than usual.

The last snow survey of the season 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.  

Rendered useless by consecutive dismal winters, a vacant boat launch on one of the state’s largest reservoirs was repurposed for Tuesday’s signing ceremony.

Newsom pointed to the exposed rocky hillsides lining Lake Oroville, noting the critical reservoir is at a 40-year low. He told reporters he’s not ready to declare a statewide drought emergency but hinted it could come soon.  

“We have executive orders that have already been drafted but haven’t yet been signed,” Newsom said. “We’re on top of this, we are mindful of the urgency as it relates to the anxiety now of entering the second year of drought conditions.”

Flanked by Newsom and a group of firefighters, Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom said 2020 “galvanized” the Legislature as it relates to wildfire funding. Bloom, who represents fire-prone areas like Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, said the funding will be made available to state and local agencies immediately as opposed to July 1 under normal budget deals.

“I’m very proud of this accomplishment,” said Bloom, whose son is a firefighter.

Other lawmakers are more skeptical of the approach, including Assemblyman James Gallagher whose district covers Lake Oroville and the town of Paradise.

Gallagher says the $536 million figure is watered down and will be ultimately misdirected. He believes the Legislature would be better off eliminating red tape known to delay prescribed burns or backing his proposal to spend $500 million specifically on removing downed trees and other fuels.  

“The legislation being signed today, while significant, is unfortunately not enough to address the urgent crisis of fuels buildup in our wildlands,” the Republican said in a statement.

But Newsom, who faces a likely recall election later this year, says California is spending more on fireproofing than it ever has. “Every year we seem to break these [wildfire] records, but this year we’re also breaking another record,” Newsom concluded the event in Butte County. “We’re investing a historic amount of money in preparation of this year’s fire season.”

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