Newsom Vows to Bolster Wildfire Fight Despite Budget-Busting Pandemic

(AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — With the state coffers charred by Covid-19 and an ominous fire season looming, California Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday wildfire-prevention efforts must remain fully funded regardless of mounting financial woes.

Giving a preview of the revised budget due tomorrow, Newsom said the state can’t afford to skimp on public safety even as his advisers warn the state is facing a potentially record high deficit. Newsom says he will ask lawmakers to provide fire departments and emergency services with hundreds of millions in new spending to suppress a fire season that has gotten off to a fast — and early — start.

Newsom used his daily briefing to try and ease the anxieties of millions of residents on edge due to the coronavirus and a disappointing winter that has mountains and foothills drying up ahead of schedule.  

“We are mindful of the understandable anxiety that this time of the year presents to people in addition to what’s going on with Covid-19,” Newsom said. “I want folks to know that we have been preparing for this upcoming wildfire season and we’re not stepping back our efforts; we’re in fact stepping them up.”

Caused in part by a meager snowpack, California has already seen over 1,100 wildfires since January, a roughly 60% increase compared to 2019. Last week alone, nearly 250 wildfires sparked across the Golden State, pulling firefighters from prescribed burns and other prevention tactics.

To advance the state’s goal of performing fuel management on 450,000 acres, Newsom wants to increase the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services’ budgets by more than $200 million combined. He says the agencies need to continue stockpiling equipment like Black Hawk helicopters and fire engines and may need to hire up to 600 additional firefighters this summer.

The Democratic governor took a jab at climate change skeptics and reminded them California is struggling with massive wildfires partly due to warming global temperatures.

“Come to California and visit us. Learn about climate change firsthand because even if you deny it, your own eyes may tell you something very, very different,” Newsom said.

Newsom’s climate change assessment came on the heels of an announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that ocean surface temperatures were the warmest ever recorded for the month of April.

According a report issued Wednesday by NOAA, temperatures of the world’s oceans sizzled a full 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. In terms of land and ocean surface temperatures, this April rated as the second highest on record, coming in at 1.91 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.  

“The April 2020 globally averaged land and ocean surface temperature departure from average was the second highest for the month in the 141-year NOAA global temperature dataset record, which dates back to 1880,” the report states. 

Along with enhancing the firefighting budget, Newsom told reporters Thursday’s proposal will include funding for a new agency that will be tasked with monitoring the wildfire safety plans of the state’s largest utilities. The 106-person agency will operate independent of the California Public Utilities Commission and be tasked strictly with monitoring utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, which has been blamed for starting scores of devastating and deadly wildfires due to faulty equipment.

Newsom said PG&E and the other two privately owned utilities have committed up to $5 billion to harden lines and have committed to lessening the severity of preemptive power shutoffs, but there is still a glaring need for the increased oversight and transparency to be provided by the new agency.

“I don’t hold my breath in any of these categories,” Newsom said. “We have been sobered by the reality of PG&E in particular over the last number of years, but we are emerging in a different frame and a different space.”

In order to continue fighting wildfires and the virus- which killed 87 more Californians overnight- Newsom reiterated the need for partnership with the Trump administration. He noted most of California’s rural landscape is federally owned and said the state and others will need massive financial relief from Congress and the White House to cure budget troubles. 

“This is not just about the state of California, these deficits are so profound and so pronounced for one thing: Covid-19. The federal government must do more to help support these states,” Newsom said.

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