The number of wildfires in California is up roughly 60% so far this year, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom — and now the state has to prepare for not just climate change's effect on the fire season, but also COVID-19.
“The hots are getting hotter, the driers are getting drier, the wets are getting wetter,” the governor said during his regular coronavirus briefing on Wednesday. He called this the situation “a new reality.”
Speaking in front of a fire truck in El Dorado County, Newsom said even with a projected $54 billion deficit, the state is stepping up efforts around wildfire prevention, holding utilities accountable, evacuating people during a fire amid the pandemic and protecting people from earthquakes.
The exact amount the state will allot to fighting and suppressing wildfires will be announced in the governor’s revised budget on Thursday.
Newsom did say that, in order to invest in wildfire preparedness, there will be cuts in other fire and safety agency areas. “We've got to mitigate and suppress these fires as we move into wildfire season,” he said. “This is a top priority of the state Legislature and our administration.”
Over the last year, California has worked on 35 wildfire mitigation projects to help protect around 200 vulnerable communities. Newsom said all but one are finished.
This year, he says 450,000 acres will be treated in the form of prescribed burns, thinning or reforestation.
“It's still not where we need to go as a state, the size and scope of the state,” he said. “There is no substitute for the work the federal government can be providing and advancing in this space.”
California is purchasing 12 Black Hawk helicopters to aid in the fire fight, according to Newsom. The state is down 44 inmate crews, and Newsom said he’s proposed an additional $85.7 million in enhancements for Cal Fire to hire some 600 workers in advance of fire season.
When it comes to evacuations during a wildfire, the state is considering a variety of options. Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, says evacuation centers may need to be separated by individuals with or without COVID-19 symptoms.
“[We’re] looking at possibly using hotel solutions, where we have the opportunity to put evacuees in hotels, single rooms, versus congregating in a large dormitory or gymnasium,” he said.
When it comes to holding utilities like PG&E accountable, Newsom said the California Public Utilities Commission is hiring more than 100 people to create a wildfire division that will monitor utilities 24-seven.
PG&E is facing a $1.9 billion penalty for its role in igniting some of the worst blazes in the state's history between 2017 and 2018, which destroyed thousands of homes and killed more than 100 people. The utility has until June 30 to come out of bankruptcy.
The governor will propose $50 million in the budget for “grants for local counties to help in their efforts around [power shutoffs].”
The governor also announced he’s renewing his desire to protect Californians from earthquakes.
“There's $17.3 million in this budget for our early warning system,” he said.
He’s recommending $2.2 billion in spending to transition the state’s seismic safety committee to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
“Being a born-and-bred, five-generation Bay Area resident, San Francisco resident, earthquakes continue to be top of my mind,” he said.
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