By Nick Cahill
SACRAMENTO, (CN) – California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday pledged “historic” new investments in fire prevention tactics, outlining a $305 million spending plan meant to better prepare the state for natural disasters after another catastrophic wildfire season.
Through a series of executive orders and proposed items in his upcoming budget proposal, the new Democratic governor on his first full-day on the job promised sweeping improvements to the state’s emergency preparedness systems. Newsom said he wants the state to buy more C-130 air tankers, fund new fire conservation and prevention crews, provide property tax relief for fire-ravaged Butte and Lake counties, install new infrared cameras in forests and kick start a statewide earthquake alert system.
“Broad strokes, we’re stepping up our game,” Newsom said during a press conference at a Sierra Foothill fire station. “I hear you, I get it, we need to do more and do better. These last two years have been devastating.”
Newsom’s announcement follows the deadliest and most costly wildfire season in state history, marked by the Carr and Camp fires in Northern California, and the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California. Insurance claims are approaching the $9 billion mark and state officials expect clean up costs to reach $3 billion.
The Camp Fire ripped through the foothill town of Paradise last December, erasing entire neighborhoods in just a few hours. The Butte County wildfire killed 86 people and the official cause is still under investigation. The Woolsey Fire destroyed about 1,600 structures and killed three people around the town of Malibu in a portion of the coastal range that spans Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.
While some victims have already blamed and sued utilities Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison for starting the various fires, state officials are still investigating the official causes.
But the fallout from the Camp Fire and other fires that actually have been officially blamed on PG&E has caused its shares to plummet over the last few months. Late Monday, the S&P Global Ratings nixed the utility’s investment-grade rating and there are rampant rumors that the utility could seek bankruptcy.
Newsom wouldn’t directly comment on PG&E’s emerging financial crisis, but noted that his administration had a meeting Tuesday morning regarding the utility. He said going forward that the state must involve utilities and insurance companies in future wildfire-related policies.
Along with the additional $105 million in wildfire funding that will be included in his Thursday budget release – $200 million was already dedicated to forest management – Newsom said he and the governors of Washington and Oregon will send the Trump administration a letter in hopes of spurring cooperation between the states and the federal government on forest management.
Standing beside law enforcement and fire officials, Newsom said it wasn’t a “coincidence” that his first major press conference as governor was about upcoming disasters.
“It’s deliberate, it reflects intentionality and it speaks to the priority that I place on emergency preparedness, response and recovery,” Newsom said.
The first of his executive orders calls on state agencies to identify communities at major risk of being unable to escape wildfires and other natural disasters. Many of the Camp Fire victims in Paradise and the surrounding foothill communities were disabled or elderly and extremely vulnerable to sudden emergencies.
“Unfortunately last year, the Camp Fire really gave us a test and an understanding that the traditional methods that we’ve used are not working; we have to do more,” said Thomas Porter, acting director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “[Newsom] is going to be sure that we do so and has promised to support our departments in making sure that happens.”
Newsom’s second order seeks to cut delays with the state’s procurement process and allow agencies to buy and implement new equipment more quickly. He said more details for the package will be included in the upcoming budget.