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Newsom Retreats on $1 Billion Wildfire Prevention Plan Ahead of Biden Meeting

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is set to talk wildfires with President Biden and governors of other Western states Wednesday, has said that the reality of climate change, with its hot summers and dry winters, means the state’s approach to fighting increasingly large and frequent blazes “fundamentally has to change.”

But the plan he is promoting, to treat 500,000 acres a year by 2025, is notably less ambitious than a 2018 executive order signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, which mandated the state reach that goal by 2023. And this week, his administration nixed more than half a billion dollars in promised fuel-reduction spending for this year, an investigation by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom has found.

Newsom declined to comment for this story. But Wade Crowfoot, his natural resources secretary, said in an interview that the state was making a “quantum leap” in wildfire prevention under Newsom, but was under no obligation to stick with his predecessor’s timeline.

“I can’t speak to what the last administration was focused on,” Crowfoot said, or “hypothesize on what the last governor had identified or had targeted.”

The 2025 goal is part of an agreement Newsom reached with President Donald Trump last year, in which the state and federal government both committed to fuel-reduction work and conducting prescribed burns across 500,000 acres every year. When asked, neither Cal Fire or the U.S. Forest Service provided details on progress toward those goals.

In the final state budget, signed Monday, Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders also agreed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars less than what they had initially proposed for wildfire prevention efforts this year. Newsom had called for over $700 million for wildfire prevention and resilience in his May revised budget. The Legislature increased that amount to $1 billion in its budget bill. But the final budget deal includes less than half of that — $458 million over the next year.

Crowfoot said Cal Fire wasn’t ready to spend the money. “We couldn’t put all that billion dollars to work on shovel ready projects immediately,” he said.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, confirmed that despite the need, the state simply wasn’t ready to take on that many projects. Spending a billion dollars on wildfire prevention in one year, he said, would be “like trying to drink water out of a fire hose.” While substantially less than what Newsom originally promised, the outlay is still more money than in years past.

Newsom is already facing criticism for misrepresenting his accomplishments on wildfire prevention. Last week, CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom reported that the governor drastically overstated — by an astounding 690% — the number of acres treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns in the very projects he said needed to be prioritized to protect the state’s most vulnerable communities. Newsom has claimed that 35 “priority projects” carried out as a result of a January 2019 executive order resulted in fire prevention work on 90,000 acres. But the state’s own data show that just 11,399 actual acres were “treated” through fuel reduction or prescribed burns.

The investigation also found that after a spike in mitigation work in Newsom’s first year in office, the number of total acres treated by Cal Fire declined precipitously, to below what was done during the Brown administration.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat who represents the Napa and Sonoma Valley wine country, which have been ravaged by wildfires in recent years, said he was “not pleased” that the prevention work decreased, and was initially “taken aback” by the last-minute budget trim. Dodd said he suspects Cal Fire doesn’t have the capacity to ramp up its prevention work.

“You’ve seen what Cal Fire has been able to get out the door this year, whether it’s prescribed fire or any number of other things,” he said. “And it’s not as quick as we’d like to have it done.”

Republican lawmakers seized on the investigation and demanded oversight hearings. Assemblyman James Gallagher, who represents the fire ravaged city of Paradise, offered amendments to the state budget to shore up wildfire prevention funding — which were quickly squelched by the Democratic majority.

Gallagher said he was unaware that Newsom pushed back to 2025 the state’s goal of treating 500,000 acres annually.

“It’s another example of how the Newsom administration isn’t treating this issue with the urgency that’s needed,” he said.

Newsom staffers and lawmakers say that even though they’ve reduced the wildfire mitigation budget this year, they plan to add an extra half a billion dollars to next year’s budget. By then, they argue, Cal Fire will be better positioned to implement those projects as the state continues to build toward the 500,000-acre goal.

Copyright 2021 KQED