Calif. governor unveils plan to fight wildfires during pandemic

The proposed plan includes hiring hundreds of new firefighters and increasing oversight of PG&E


Kurtis Alexander
San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged Wednesday to hire hundreds of new firefighters and increase oversight of troubled utility PG&E in hopes of weathering a potentially tough fire season complicated by the financial and health challenges of the coronavirus. But he acknowledged the difficulties that lie ahead.

The state is coming out of a dry winter, which promises a more flammable landscape, while firefighters have been limited in how much they have been able to prepare for the increased threat. Fire crews also face the risk of contracting the virus in a job that invariably means working, traveling and living in large groups. A sickened workforce could undermine the state’s ability to head off the danger.

The state budget that Newsom is scheduled to propose Thursday, the governor said, will include $86 million for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to boost its firefighting response, including hiring 600 employees, and $127 million for the Department of Emergency Services to address such disasters.

The proposed budget will also fund the creation of a new 106-person wildfire safety division to oversee Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and other utilities. Many of the big fires in recent years, including the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County that killed more than 80 people, were caused by faulty, fire-prone power equipment.

“We have been preparing for the upcoming wildfire season and we are not stepping back our efforts. In fact, we are stepping them up,” Newsom said at a media briefing on the coronavirus at a Cal Fire station in Cameron Park (El Dorado County).

The governor has made fire safety a top priority of his administration. He took office just months after the town of Paradise was wiped out in the Camp Fire and outlined an ambitious agenda to reduce the threat. But in calling for more money for firefighters this year, Newsom also said that Cal Fire and the Department of Emergency Services would face cuts in some areas, owing to the expected $54 billion deficit at the hands of the coronavirus.

“We did pull back in certain areas,” he said. “We couldn’t do everything we proposed.”

The governor did not elaborate on what reductions would be made, saying only that the details of the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, beginning in July, would be announced Thursday.

The state’s firefighting plan also includes strategic changes aimed at navigating a world where the risk of infection remains a constant. Mirroring guidelines recently published by federal fire managers, California will try to keep firefighters apart or in small groups as much as possible and will work to prevent wildfires from getting too big so they don’t require massive deployments of staff.

“If we keep fires small at the beginning, with these extra resources we’re going to have we’re going to protect our firefighters and the public,” said Cal Fire Director Thom Porter, who was with Newsom on Wednesday.

The push for a more aggressive attack on wildfires comes in contrast to recent guidance calling for firefighters to let low-risk blazes burn to get rid of the combustible vegetation. While the new tactic could slow efforts to increase forest resiliency and reduce the long-term risk of fire, Porter emphasized the need to get through the short term.

Early this month, federal fire officials worked with local and state officials across the country to design regional Wildland Fire Response Plans to address health issues posed by the coronavirus.

In addition to recommending a slew of social distancing measures, the sprawling plans offered a stern warning about the seriousness of the contagion.

“In the event of a high disease-spread scenario with a high rate of infection, the associated loss of individuals from service will severely tax the ability to maintain an adequate wildfire response, even during a moderately active fire season,” reads the plan for California.

Mike Mohler, a deputy director at Cal Fire, said the state has been modeling what reductions in staffing might look like. “Could we function with the loss of 50% of our work force? We could, but no one would be going home,” he said. “And we may have to begin triaging fires, deciding which ones are priorities.”

The state also expects a decline in prison inmates who help fight fires. Many have been released to reduce jail populations in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In the past, inmate crews have sometimes made up half of the staffing on wildfires.

The addition of new Cal Fire employees as well as aid from the U.S. National Guard and the California State Guard, Mohler said, would help keep firefighter numbers high.

He added that new social distancing policies, like spreading out the large fire camps where firefighters often work, sleep and eat for weeks on end would go a long way to making sure staff stay healthy.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Office of Emergency Services, said similar distancing measures would apply to how communities evacuate during wildfires. His agency would work to get more hotel rooms for those forced to leave, and when that isn’t possible, emergency officials would make use of partitions and air purifiers to keep crowded evacuation centers safe.

“This is not a perfect solution,” he said. “We’re obviously going to be working through these in real time and assessing each individual case.”

Firefighters also are still playing catch-up after the coronavirus lockdown put a lot of their prevention activities on hold this spring. The U.S. Forest Service, the nation’s largest wildland firefighting force, halted all prescribed burning for several weeks while Cal Fire has been more cautious — and sometimes more sparing — with vegetation management programs.

Recent wet weather has helped delay the start of the high fire season. But the arid winter means that when spring rains do finish, California’s hills and valleys will dry out more quickly.

On lands managed by state firefighters, there have already been 60% more wildfires this year compared to last year, according to Cal Fire.

“The fuel conditions are drying out, the grasses are starting to cure and that is when we tend to see more fires,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Amy Head.

Chronicle Staff Writer Alejandro Serrano contributed to this report.

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©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

 

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