Governor declares wildfire emergency in California, hastens forest thinning

Flames consume a car dealership as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP File Photo/Noah Berger/via Courthouse News)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Rushing to dampen what’s likely to be another long and daunting wildfire season, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency order Friday that suspends certain environmental reviews and speeds up tree removal near the state’s most fire-prone communities.

Newsom said his latest executive action is needed to greenlight forest-thinning efforts that are routinely delayed by regulatory red tape.

“The increasing wildfire risks we face as a state mean we simply can’t wait until a fire starts in order to start deploying emergency resources,” Newsom said in a statement. “California needs sustained focus and immediate action in order to better protect our communities.”

The move not only lessens environmental review, but state bidding requirements as well: Newsom says the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection needs to be freed from the paperwork process and begin clearing portions of California’s forests that have been ravaged by drought and disease.

Cal Fire director Thom Porter says the contract and procurement reforms will allow the agency to “think outside the box and work with innovators from across the private, public and nonprofit sectors to identify solutions to the challenge of detecting when a wildfire starts, and subsequently, where the fire will progress.”

Republican state Sen. Patricia Bates applauded Newsom’s efforts to ramp up fire prevention projects.

“The governor deserves credit for acting with urgency to prepare our state for this year’s wildfire season. Given the devastation of recent disasters such as the Camp, Woolsey and Holy fires, the state must move quickly to protect vulnerable communities now,” Bates, who represents parts of Orange and San Diego counties, said in a statement.

But some environmentalist groups aren’t pleased with Newsom’s directive, calling the renewed push for forest clearing an outdated strategy that history has shown to be ineffective in the Golden State.

“We share Gov. Newsom’s desire for urgent action on wildfires, but for decades now, harmful logging-based strategies have failed to keep Californians safe,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “The governor should reject this doomed, destructive approach and direct funding toward proven fire-safety strategies like retrofitting homes and improving defensible space around them.”

Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, has similar concerns.

“In this case, we worry that the lack of review and oversight might result in unintended environmental and public health harms,” Phillips said in an email. “The biggest fires in this state in recent years have been wind-driven, ember-filled fires. The best way to protect people and property from those types of fires is to make sure buildings have 100 feet of defensible space from the home outward.”

One of Newsom’s first acts as governor was directing Cal Fire to compile a report on the towns and communities most vulnerable to wildfires. The report estimated that up to 15 million acres of forestland could use tree trimming and prescribed burns ahead of California’s ever-lengthening fire season. It outlined 35 total fire mitigation projects, most of them in Northern California.

Newsom’s announcement follows the deadliest and most expensive 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 cleanup costs to reach $3 billion.

The Camp Fire ripped through the foothill town of Paradise this past November, 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 spanning Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Along with expediting the 35 projects, Newsom called for a $50 million public awareness campaign intended to spur homeowners to increase defensible space around homes and for towns to enact wildfire emergency plans. The state estimates there are 2.2 million homes in California’s wildland urban interface.

Since taking office, Newsom has also called on lawmakers to dedicate more funding for new air tankers, helicopters, infrared cameras in forests and property tax relief for counties such as Lake and Butte.