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California to pour $536 million into fire prevention amid drought concerns

"This is about more than money," said state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins. "It's about lives, homes, and livelihoods."
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom struck a deal with lawmakers Thursday to free up $536 million for wildfire prevention as the state faces more drought and an elevated fire risk that experts warn could be as catastrophic as last year's historic infernos.

The money would provide improved prevention for all parts of California and would pay for forest maintenance, defensible space, home hardening and vegetation management.

“With California facing another extremely dry year, it is critical that we get a head start on reducing our fire risk," said Newsom, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon in a joint statement.

In a tweeted statement, Atkins added that every dollar spent on prevention "saves $6-$7 in damage."

"But, this is about more than money," she said in the tweet. "It's about lives, homes, and livelihoods."

Last month, Newsom authorized more than $80 million in emergency funds to hire an additional 1,400 firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, to bolster fuels management and wildfire response efforts. Newsom’s 2021 budget proposed $1 billion to support wildfire and forest management, according to the governor's office.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot applauded the state's firefighting efforts but said more needs to be done as climate change continues to threaten the environmental outlook.

Image: California wildfire prevention, backfires
Firefighters from Cal Fire set backfires to prevent wildfire from spreading into a residential area at the Blue Ridge Fire in Chino, California, on Oct. 27, 2020.Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images file

"The science is clear: Warming winter temperatures and warming summer temperatures are creating more dangerous and challenging wildfire conditions," he said. "Clearly much more needs to be done on a proactive, upfront basis to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire."

Crowfoot added he expects this summer to be "more of the same" as last year.

"We can't sugarcoat the fact that this summer is going to be challenging," he said. "We are just getting out of our second consecutive dry winter."

The wildfire prevention measures come on the heels of a catastrophic fire season last year that charred more than 4 million acres across the state, destroyed hundreds of structures and blanketed much of the state in heavy, dense smoke for several weeks.

On Thursday, the National Weather Service warned that 92 percent of California is experiencing drought conditions. Severe drought conditions are especially troublesome in Southern California, which received below-average rain through the winter months.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, recent warm and dry weather has led to early and accelerated snowmelt throughout much of the West. More than 99 percent of the state is in the abnormally dry or drought category, fueling concerns about what could happen when temperatures soar into the triple digits as they did last year.

Last month, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla and 21 members of Congress sent a letter to the Agriculture and Interior departments asking to transition their agencies to a year-round firefighting workforce as fire seasons increasingly turn into fire years.

The letter asks the two departments to reclassify more seasonal firefighters as permanent. Currently, most wildland firefighters work only during the traditional fire season, which historically ran for about six months out of the year. Many of those firefighters are classified as forestry technicians who do not receive the same pay and benefits as state and local firefighters.

“As California and the West continue to contend with historic and destructive wildfire seasons, it has become clear that we are entering a ‘new normal’ in which increasingly intense wildfires wreak havoc during a nearly year-round fire season,” the lawmakers said in the letter.