In this era of uber-polarized politics, even the most basic functions of government become points of conflict — and in California that includes managing the ever-increasing wildfire threat.
As a new wave of wildfires sweeps through California, including the immense Dixie fire that has already blackened nearly 600,000 acres in Northeastern California, it is one of the many factors affecting the potential recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
On wildfires, as on other issues, Newsom’s record has been erratic.
Newsom Declares New Prevention Policy
On his first day as governor, Newsom declared a broad new policy aimed at prevention rather than merely suppressing wildfires as they occur.
“Everybody has had enough,” Newsom said, adding that the state’s approach “fundamentally has to change.”
Newsom said the state would clear underbrush and thin forests with prescribed burns and other techniques, emulating how nature and Native Americans dealt with fire for countless eons.
His new policy won plaudits from scientists who had long argued that suppression allowed too much fuel to accumulate, thus making future fires more frequent and more intense.
Newsom was also aligning the state with a U.S. Forest Service policy of letting small fires burn to reduce fuel, dubbed “manage fires for resource benefit.”
However, what seemed to be an innovative new state policy became an embarrassment when Capitol Public Radio reported in June that Newsom had hugely overstated what the state had done over the previous two years.
Investigation Says Newsom Overstated Fire Efforts
The Capitol Public Radio investigation “found Newsom overstated, by an astounding 690%, the number of acres treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns in the very forestry projects he said needed to be prioritized to protect the state’s most vulnerable communities. Newsom has claimed that 35 ‘priority projects’ carried out as a result of his executive order resulted in fire prevention work on 90,000 acres. But the state’s own data show the actual number is 11,399.
“Overall, California’s response has faltered under Newsom,” the report continued. “After an initial jump during his first year in office, data…show CalFire’s fuel reduction output dropped by half in 2020, to levels below Gov. Jerry Brown’s final year in office. At the same time, Newsom slashed roughly $150 million from CalFire’s wildfire prevention budget.”
CalFire Chief Thom Porter, as is the custom when political embarrassments erupt, shouldered the blame, saying his agency provided the erroneous data touted by Newsom.
A month after the Capitol Public Radio report, and with multiple fires burning, Newsom and other Western governors pleaded with President Joe Biden to abandon the Forest Service’s let-it-burn policies and ramp up suppression.
Newsom’s Policy Change Draws Criticism
Newsom cited the Tamarack fire south of Lake Tahoe that the Forest Service had monitored but not suppressed. After burning slowly for 12 days, it exploded into a major wildfire that destroyed dozens of structures.
Newsom blamed the Forest Service policy that “too often is wait and see” for allowing the Tamarack Fire to spread.
“We need your help to change the culture in terms of the suppression strategies in this climate literally and figuratively to be more aggressive on these federal fires,” Newsom told Biden.
Within a few days, Forest Service chief Randy Moore, declaring a “national crisis,” suspended the policy of monitoring, rather than suppressing, small fires and promised to ramp up firefighting efforts.
The policy change has drawn criticism from the same scientists who had praised the Forest Service and Newsom for emphasizing long-term resiliency.
While those policies make sense in the longer run, when wildfires strike, politicians such as Newsom and Biden know that the public wants them to be extinguished ASAP, and they ignore that attitude at their peril.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.