Gov. Newsom Pledges Money, Technology to Fight State’s Wildfires

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Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged new state investment in fire prevention and response at a Cal Fire station in Colfax on Jan. 8, 2019. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

On his first full day as governor, Gavin Newsom on Tuesday named a number of key emergency personnel, pledged to funnel tens of millions of dollars into fire prevention and response, and issued a public plea for the federal government to double its investment in managing its forest lands in California.

Standing at a Cal Fire station in Colfax — in the heavily wooded Sierra foothills, an area particularly vulnerable to fire — Newsom's announcement just on the heels of his inauguration underscored how the wildfire crisis he's inherited could dominate his first months as governor.

In addition to putting more money into fire prevention and suppression, Newsom said he intends to harness technology, with the help of the National Guard, to modernize the way that California plans for and fights fires.

"I am happy to be back here on my first day at work to make a symbolic and substantive point. I place no greater emphasis and energy and sense of urgency than on the issue of public safety ... and in particular on issues of emergency preparedness," Newsom said. "In broad strokes we are stepping up our game. I hear you, I get it, we need to do more and better. The last two years have been devastating."

In the past two years, California has experienced its worst blazes in recorded state history, including November's Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures in and around the Butte County town of Paradise.

In a pair of executive orders, Newsom announced that in addition to the $1 billion the state has already promised to spend on forest management over the next five years, he will propose budget enhancements later this week that include more year-round fire crews and investments in technology and equipment to help prevent and fight wildfires.

In addition to the $200 million already authorized by lawmakers for forest management spending next fiscal year, Newsom said he will propose another $105 million for a slew of fire-related investments.

That will include five new Conservation Corps crews, which help clear brush and do other land management, and 13 new fire engines that will be pre-deployed across the state. It also includes investing in more helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, $25 million to help local governments prepare better for battling fires and $25 million over the next two years to help modernize the 911 system.

Newsom also pledged to prioritize communities that are most "socially vulnerable" to fires because of issues such as poverty, disabilities and language barriers — and he ordered Cal Fire, within 45 days, to provide a report with recommendations on how to best prevent and mitigate wildfires "with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and protection of public health."

"We want to use science in a way we haven't, and address social mobility in a way we haven't," Newsom said, adding that the state needs to not just look at fire risk but also community vulnerability and "begin to overlay those things."


California National Guard Maj. Gen. David Baldwin said he also intends to embrace the innovative spirit Newsom is pushing, and may need to push back on the Pentagon to do so.

"We are exploring ways we can enhance ground-based sensors ... even space-based systems," he said. "We also have to challenge some of the firewalls and systems that exist back in the Pentagon and in D.C. — rules that limit our ability to leverage and use those systems."

For example, Baldwin said the California National Guard must ask the secretary of Defense to personally authorize the use of drones and unmanned systems, a process that can take hours, days or even weeks that the state doesn't have when a fire is burning.

"Those are the kinds of rules and old ways of doing business we want to break down," he said.

Newsom also released a letter to President Trump, also signed by the governors of Oregon and Washington, requesting "increased cooperation as our respective states endure more frequent and devastating wildfires with every passing year."

The letter notes that while the federal government owns much of the wildlands in all three states, it has cut the U.S. Forest Service budget by $2 billion in recent years — even as California, Oregon and Washington states have all invested hundreds of millions more into forest health and fire suppression.

"We are doing what's needed to mitigate fire danger within our borders," said the letter, signed by Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. "Our significant state-level efforts will not be as effective without a similar commitment to increased wildland management by you, our federal partners."

Newsom announced he is making Acting Cal Fire Director Thom Porter the permanent head of the state's firefighting agency, and that he's naming his former chief of staff, Rhys Williams, as the point person on emergency management within the governor's office.