SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It almost goes without saying that not everything California wanted in January would be realized in the May budget revise. Coronavirus shutdowns took California's budget projects from a surplus to a deficit totaling tens of billions.
Despite the impacts, California's wildfire season was top of mind for the May revise. In a Wednesday press conference, Governor Gavin Newsom said California saw a 60% increase in the number of wildfires from January to May 10 compared to last year — 1,135 in 2020 compared to 675 in 2019.
"It doesn't surprise our team here. It doesn’t surprise many of the experts," Newsom said. "We have had a below average year of precipitation. The snow pack substantially below where it’s been, or at least was, last year."
Touting enhancements for wildfire preparation, suppression, and recovery in the budget revise, Newsom says California won't be stepping back ahead of this year's fire season and the coronavirus pandemic.
Efforts on fuel management, vegetation management, reforestation, and prescribed are expected to be advanced on roughly 450,000 acres of land this year. Although, the governor acknowledged there was still much more work to be done.
For Cal Fire Chief Tom Porter, the enhancements are summed up in three words — response, prevention and preparedness.
With response, Porter says they'll need the help of their federal and local partners. He described those efforts as "very coordinated," especially in the face of the coronavirus pandemic in the state.
Another focus heading into wildfire season is to keep fires small with the initial response to the fire.
"Everybody's on board. As I said, we've been talking about this this is a very key component, but if we keep fires small at the beginning with these extra resources that we're going to have, then we will protect our firefighters and the public from unnecessary exposure to smoke and the need to bring them together in congregational settings," Porter said.
Porter also said Californians will also have a role to play in protecting lives and property by implementing defensible space and structure hardening. (More information on these wildfire prevention methods are available at readyforwildfire.org.)
"If you will continue to work on that piece, you will be a hero in the wildland fire setting in California, and every single Californian can be that hero," Porter said.
In terms of numbers, the overall enhancements account for a $127 million budget boost for the California Officer of Emergency Services. Part of that includes $17.3 million for the earthquake early warning system and $50 million toward support grants for counties that deal with the PG&E blackouts.
Separate from OES, Cal Fire will be sekeing $85.7 million to improve its surge capacity and hire personnel before the fire season hits its peak. Newsom says they're looking to hire about 600 personnel.
Along with new hires, Newsom says to expect 26 new engines across the state, four new incident command centers, and 12 black hawk helicopters.
The enhancements come after a series of devastating wildfires that scorched the landscape of the state in recent years, notably with the Mendocino Complex Fire, Carr Fire, Kincade Fire, and deadly Camp Fire.
The overwhelming loss of human life in the Camp Fire spurred forward a prevention tool that put additional anxiety on Northern Californians, specifically the Public Safety Power Shutoffs that saw PG&E black out power in mass numbers in the last half of the year.
Newsom said state efforts have pushed a $5 billion investment in safety measures from investor owned utilities like PG&E and a wildfire advisory committee.
On Thursday, the California Public Utility Commission is also expected to put together a team of 106 people for a wildfire safety division that oversees the safety efforts of utilities like PG&E in the state. Eventually, the division will become its own entity.
"It's a way of saying, 'we're in a place we've never been in the past, in terms of oversight and accountability and transparency with our investor owned utilities to help support these wildfire mitigation efforts,'” Newsom said.
On PG&E's end, they've begun hosting webinars for customers to share updated information about wildfire safety and their so-called Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which led to massive blackouts in 2019 that affected millions.
A Wednesday webinar was originally supposed to happen in person, but, with the coronavirus pandemic, things moved to a digital format. The event covered information on how PG&E plans on improving the blackouts.
Specifically, the utility announced it is working to make these events smaller in scale and shorter in length.
"As we all work to fight coronavirus, we also know wildfire season is around the corner," a PG&E spokesperson said. "PG&E's work to prevent wildfires and reduce the impact of PSPS events is essential for the safety of customers and communities and will continue as long as PG&E can perform it safely for both employees and customers."
California will be heading into the fire season balancing potentially devastating wildfires and anxiety-inducing power shutoffs all while keeping in mind the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Newsom encouraged people to take this virus seriously as both death tolls infections rise.
"This virus is not disappeared. It has not gone away," Newsom said. "As we transition in to fire season, we have to also be cognizant that as we increase our ranks in personnel that we keep our first responders healthy as a top priority."
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