California plans $536M for forests before wildfire season

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California will authorize $536 million toward forest management projects and efforts to reduce wildfires before the worst of the fire season strikes later this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders said Thursday.

That more than doubles $200 million in recent annual spending, advocates said, and wildfire preparedness grants were dropped entirely last year when the state prematurely anticipated a pandemic-driven budget shortfall.

Armed now with an unexpected multi-billion-dollar surplus, lawmakers plan to add the money to this fiscal year’s budget before considering even more in the new spending plan that takes effect July 1.

Newsom said lawmakers “wanted to move forward more aggressively” to immediately allocate more than half the $1 billion that he had sought to spend starting in the second half of the year. That will “get these projects moving … so we’re prepared for this upcoming wildfire season.”

In January, Newsom had proposed spending $323 million this spring on forest health and fire prevention projects.

Officials are rushing to thin forests, build fuel breaks around vulnerable communities and allow for planned burns before a dry winter turns into a tinder-dry summer. Last year’s record-setting wildfire season charred more than 4% of the state while destroying nearly 10,500 buildings and killing 33 people.

Earlier this month, the governor used his emergency powers to authorize nearly $81 million to hire nearly 1,400 additional firefighters. He said the firefighting and mitigation efforts are in addition to the state’s many long-term efforts to fight climate change that is worsening fires and droughts.

Lawmakers said Thursday’s agreement expands on the governor’s January budget proposal with more short- and long-term spending on vegetation management on both public and private land, clearing space around homes and making them less vulnerable to wildfires, fire prevention grants and prevention workforce training. It also includes $25 million in economic stimulus for the hard-hit forestry economy.

And the leaders said they recognize that fires burn in grasslands and chaparral as well as forests, so the package includes all types of fire-prone terrain and vegetation, with incentives for prevention efforts to protect areas with larger numbers of residents.

The new plan is in Assembly and Senate budget bills that Newsom said will be considered by lawmakers as early as Monday so he can sign them into law on Tuesday.

Three Republican Assembly members who represent rural, fire-prone areas in a joint statement said that the portion included for forest management projects is the same as last year and is “quite simply not enough and (does) not recognize the urgency of the situation.”

“A $500 million appropriation would be huge and they’ll need to do substantially more than that again for next year,” said Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives at the Pacific Forest Trust, a nonprofit land trust and think-tank that promotes forest conservation. “It will need to be in the billions.”

Besides devoting some of the budget windfall to fire preparedness, he said lawmakers should find a stable funding source for future years.

“Just as it took us a century to create the fire problems we have right now, it’s going to take us many years to restore resilience to the forest landscape in California,” Mason said.

Newsom was bracketed by a red state firetruck and yellow-uniformed members of the California Conservation Corps working behind him as he spoke outdoors from a podium set up before an area of thinned trees in the Shaver Lake area in Fresno County.

He said previously completed fuel breaks there helped contain the Creek Fire in September. It was one of the largest fires in the state last year, destroying nearly 900 structures and burning more than 537 square miles (1,391 square kilometers) in Fresno and Madera counties.

Lawmakers have already mostly divvied up what Newsom said in January would be a $15 billion one-time surplus, with most of it going to schools and a state economic stimulus package that includes $600 payments to millions of low- to moderate-income Californians.

But the state expects another $26 billion in aid from the federal government with few limits on how it can be spent. Mason and Newsom said Democratic President Joe Biden’s new administration should also invest more in forest projects, given that more than half of California’s forestland is federally owned.

That’s a change from the last few years when Newsom said he felt like he was “a sparring partner” with the U.S. Forest Service and former president Donald Trump blamed Democratic state officials for not doing enough forest management.

State officials said they hope to get $75 million in federal disaster prevention grants to match money that the state will spend on making homes less vulnerable to wildfires.

Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd, a member of the Senate Wildfire Working Group, said the new spending package includes more than $280 million for forest management; $200 million for fuel breaks; and $30 million for community and home hardening.

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