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California governor proposes $2 billion in wildfire preparedness spending

Kate Dargan of the nonprofit California Fire Safe Council called it "a game-changing amount of money."
Image: Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the media after he toured the North Complex Fire zone in Butte County on Sept. 11, 2020, outside of Oroville, Calif.Paul Kitagaki Jr. / AP file

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday unveiled a revised budget proposal that includes what his office said is record spending for emergency preparation efforts amid another drought and a water crisis at the Oregon border.

With more than 4 million acres burned, California experienced its most destructive fire season last year, but this year is looking like it could be worse, and the state officials are scrambling to replace a shrinking number of inmate hand crews.

Newsom's response is to "make the single largest investment in wildfire preparedness in our state’s history — $2 billion in emergency preparedness investments," his office said in a statement after announcing his proposal for the 2021-22 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Kate Dargan, a former fire chief and current chair of the nonprofit California Fire Safe Council, called it "the largest expenditure any state has ever spent on focused wildfire preparedness."

"It is a game-changing amount of money," she said.

The sum would be on top of about $3 billion in annual base funding for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said deputy state fire marshal Lynne Tolmachoff. The extra $2 billion would be shared with the state Office of Emergency Services and the California Military Department, she said.

The governor's office said the money will be used for firefighting equipment, including airplanes and helicopters, and land management, including helping residents create defensible space around their homes.

Tolmachoff said it would also go toward hiring hand crews after Covid-19 and lower incarceration rates reduced the number of hands from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"It makes a huge difference with the loss of inmate crews over the last two years," she said.

Newsom, who is facing a recall election challenge, has a $76 billion budget surplus to work with. He is also proposing more cash payments to residents, rent relief and $8.75 billion to house the growing number of homeless people in the state.

Republican challenger Kevin Faulconer said through a spokesman that the proposals show Newsom is "desperate to convince voters that he's finally doing his job."

California has been beset by a number of catastrophic fire seasons in recent years. In 2018, the state experienced its most destructive season to date, but 2020 took that title by more than doubling the number of acres burned.

Yet state fire officials are dreading the drought conditions this year, which they say are worse than 2020's. On Thursday, the federal Climate Prediction Center said sometimes rainy El Niño weather conditions would remain at bay through fall.

Dargan, of the California Fire Safe Council, praised Newsom for a proposed budget she said "really acknowledges this is a long game."

"It invests in several solutions before the tide turns," she said.