California will authorize $536 million for wildfire mitigation and forest management projects before the worst of the fire season strikes later this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders said Thursday.
That more than doubles $200 million in recent annual spending, advocates said, and wildfire preparedness grants were dropped entirely last year when the state prematurely anticipated a pandemic-driven budget shortfall.
Newsom discussed the budget priority during a stop in Shaver Lake Thursday afternoon. It was a return visit for Newsom, who visited the Creek Fire damage last September with Kamala Harris, then a U.S. Senator and running for vice president.
“To the entire community out here in Fresno County, to all the extraordinary firefighters, the folks on the front lines, just hats off and and thank you for your patience, your perseverance. And more importantly, as I travel around and was driving around the sites and seeing people back in their homes and and see people back out here on these hand crews to your resilience as well. And it’s a reminder of how resilient this state is,” Newsom said.
Armed now with an unexpected multi-billion-dollar surplus, lawmakers plan to add the money to this fiscal year’s budget before considering even more in the new spending plan that takes effect July 1.
Climate Change Hoax? “Believe Your Own Damn Eyes”
Newsom surveyed the fire areas with state and federal fire officials. He also brought up how climate change affects fire season.
“You don’t believe in climate change? You don’t believe in science? You believe your own damn eyes. Something is happening as it relates to the issue of climate, and that’s exacerbating conditions and making the challenge of wildfire suppression and prevention that much more ominous,” Newsom said.
Newsom also referenced the ease dealing with the Biden Administration in fighting fires from the era of President Donald Trump.
“We don’t want to be a sparring partner with the U.S. Forest Service. With all due respect, the last few years kind of felt like that. A lot of finger pointing which is highly ironic with 57% forest in the state of California under federal authority and administration,” Newsom said.
Planning Ahead to Reduce Fire Risk
“With California facing another extremely dry year, it is critical that we get a head start on reducing our fire risk,” Newsom and his fellow Democrats who lead the Assembly and Senate said in a joint statement.
They’re rushing to thin forests, build fuel breaks around vulnerable communities and allow for planned burns before a dry winter turns into a tinder-dry summer. Last year’s record-setting wildfire season charred more than 4% of the state while destroying nearly 10,500 buildings and killing 33 people.
Earlier this month, the governor used his emergency powers to authorize nearly $81 million to hire nearly 1,400 additional firefighters. In January, Newsom proposed spending $323 million this spring on forest health and fire prevention projects, with another $1 billion in next year’s budget.
Lawmakers said Thursday’s agreement expands on the governor’s plan with more short- and long-term spending on vegetation management on both public and private land, clearing space around homes and making them less vulnerable to wildfires, fire prevention grants and prevention workforce training. It also includes economic stimulus for the hard-hit forestry economy.
And the leaders said they recognize that fires burn in grasslands and chaparral as well as forests, so the package includes all types of fire-prone terrain and vegetation, with incentives for prevention efforts to protect areas with larger numbers of residents.
Funding for Forest Projects Needs to be a Top Priority
“A $500 million appropriation would be huge and they’ll need to do substantially more than that again for next year,” said Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives at the Pacific Forest Trust, a nonprofit land trust and think-tank that promotes forest conservation. “It will need to be in the billions.”
Besides devoting some of the budget windfall to fire preparedness, he said lawmakers should find a stable funding source for future years.
“Just as it took us a century to create the fire problems we have right now, it’s going to take us many years to restore resilience to the forest landscape in California,” Mason said.
Lawmakers have already mostly divvied up what Newsom said in January would be a $15 billion one-time surplus, with most of it going to schools and a state economic stimulus package that includes $600 payments to millions of low- to moderate-income Californians.
But the state expects another $26 billion in aid from the federal government with few limits on how it can be spent. Mason said Democratic President Joe Biden’s new administration should also invest more in forest projects, given that more than half California’s forestland is federally owned.
State officials said they hope to get federal disaster prevention grants to match money that the state will spend on making homes less vulnerable to wildfires.