On his first full day as governor, at a Cal Fire station in the Sierra foothills, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an executive order asking for a list of priority fire prevention projects within 45 days.
“We are at a point where everybody’s had enough,” Newsom said, flanked the heads of CalFire, the California Office of Emergency Services, California Highway Patrol, California National Guard. “We need to, I think, make sure we are prepared more than ever for the next few months as we enter into the height of our fire season.”
That was in early January. By late March, the governor had his list: 35 projects, in high-risk areas with vulnerable populations throughout the state. They include prescribed burns and creating fuel breaks — gaps in vegetation that firefighters can use to establish containment. He declared a “statewide emergency on wildfires” and fast-tracked those projects’ environmental reviews.
Now, fire season is in full swing. The projects? Not so much.
Two are done. Three more are at least half complete.
On the other hand, 15 of the 35 projects are less than 10 percent complete. Three-quarters of the projects are under 20 percent complete.
“There is no promise that we were going to have them done by the start of the fire season,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told CapRadio in an interview last week. “That was never part of the process.”
Normally, Porter says, it would take a year before any work could start. These projects are far ahead of that.
“We are in the slowest phase of all of the projects. But all of the projects are being set up for success that will occur later this summer or into the fall — possibly in the winter,” he said.
Besides, Porter adds, it’s rarely a good idea to conduct prescribed burns during fire season — between spring and autumn’s first rainfall.
“We need those fire fighting resources in case another fire starts,” Porter says. “We don’t want to be tied up on something we created, and not be able to put the resources we need to put out another fire.”
Still, Porter says he’s directed crews to start work at each area’s most vulnerable location.
“Everything that’s been done — even if it’s minor acreage so far — is that most critical point in the projects,” he said. “So even if a fire starts and we don’t have 100 percent of the project done, there’s a significant benefit to every acre that’s being treated.”
Porter says the projects should get done this fall or winter. Until then, he says, be thankful Mother Nature dumped all that rain on the state earlier this year.
The governor’s office referred comment to Cal Fire.
See a map of Cal Fire's Priority Projects here.