California Gov. Gavin Newsom has released an unprecedented $1-billion plan for preventing wildfires, making a deal with legislators to fast-track more than half the money.
The plan calls for clearing vegetation on half a million acres a year, up from the current annual pace of about 80,000 acres. The approach stems largely from anxiety over drought and invasive beetles that killed nearly 150 million trees last decade in the Sierra Nevada, creating conditions prone to fire. However, a growing number of wildfire experts and environmental groups say Newsom’s plan shortchanges home-owners by prioritizing logging and other projects that are ill-suited to stop the type of wind-driven forest fires that have repeatedly devastated communities across the state.
Researchers say it is especially true in Southern California, where wildfires predominantly burn though chaparral and grasslands, blasting communities with ember storms, such as in the 2007 Harris fire in San Diego County, the 2017 Thomas fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and the 2018 Woolsey fire in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
“There is a pretty big disconnect between this budget and trying to do something about the loss of lives and homes,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Santa Barbara.
Newsom’s team was quick to point out that, while the state spends billions on wildfire suppression, largely through the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, it has never dedicated such resources to prevention.
As part of the plan, the state plans to launch a pilot program with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide money for home retrofits, such as sealing off eaves and installing ember-resistant vents.
“This proposed budget really does represent a paradigm shift in the state’s approach on wildfire,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot.
“This is a quantum leap investment in upfront action to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.” Critics say the administration’s spending priorities are backward. While landscape-scale vegetation treatments most appropriate for forests would receive more than $500 million, the governor’s budget provides just $25 million for the pilot program to protect homes.
Fifteen of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred since 2015, following a pattern that overwhelmingly unfolds outside of the state’s most heavily forested areas.