SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) — With the impending fire season approaching in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state nevertheless is preparing to spend millions more for wildfire preparation and suppression strategies, including establishment of a new wildfire safety division in the state Public Utilities Commission.
In addition, Newsom said PG&E and the two other investor-owned utilities in the state would be tasked with increasing their own wildfire mitigation efforts even as the state is working to usher PG&E out of bankruptcy.
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The governor noted that between January and May of 2019, there were 675 wildfires across the state, while there have now been 1,135 wildfires in the state so far this year, approximately a 60 percent increase in a year with below average precipitation and a drop in Sierra snowpack levels.
“I want folks to know we are mindful of the threats. We are mindful of the understandable anxiety that this time of year presents to people in addition to what’s going on with COVID-19,” said Newsom.
Newsom announced this year’s budget would include $127 million in enhancements to the state Office of Emergency Services, over the baseline budget approved last year, for wildfire preparation and suppression strategies, as well as earthquake and other disaster planning.
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Newsom said the state has up to now focused its energy on fire abatement in 200 vulnerable communities in addition to completing 35 high-profile vegetation and fuel management projects, including the one remaining unfinished project along Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains that should be completed within the next eight days.
Aside from the state’s wildfire preparation and mitigation efforts, Newsom said $5 billion is being required from the state’s utilities for wildfire safety measures. A new wildfire safety division is being established within the California Public Utilities Commission to oversee all of the state utilities’ efforts on prevention and certified mitigation plans.
Newsom said that PG&E must “…independent of the state, federal, local and private sector, invest in their own efforts to secure their wires, in their poles, to advance their undergrounding, to focus on making sure they have access to information in real time with infrared cameras and weather stations; their efforts to do more on their own vegetation management, to secure their own aerial fleet and air support for recovery efforts.”
The state is looking at how PG&E is approaching the criteria for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), while the state would add $50 million for grants to support local counties PSPS efforts, including how to secure the November election during a power shutoff with backup generators and broad planning.
Newsom said while the utility has made significant advances in its wildfire mitigation efforts, more will be required of it as the company tries to emerge from bankruptcy and keep up its required wildfire safety benchmarks.
“We are 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,” said Newsom. “I am not naive that these utilities are where they need to be, quite the contrary. In fact, PG&E is still in bankruptcy. They have the opportunity to come out of bankruptcy by June 30, but the predicate to all of that is to fulfill the requirements of these plans.”
The governor also said his revised state budget will include a budget increase for California Office of Emergency Services, including $17.3 million for the development of the state’s earthquake early warning system.
Separate from $127 million enhancement for the OES, Newsom announced a $85.7 million budget enhancement for Cal Fire, specifically to improve surge capacity and to hire 600 additional personnel before peak of fire season.
Newsom said Cal Fire would be adding 26 new fire engines and four incident command units deployed by July 1st. Twelve Blackhawk helicopters are also included in the budget, one of which was already delivered in October used in a Tehama County wildfire in November.
The governor noted there were another 1,759 people testing positive and 87 more deaths from COVID-19 within 24 hours, and that as we enter into fire season and increase the ranks of firefighters, the state has to continue to keep first responders healthy and maintain the state’s posture on the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a tired cliche, but you have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We’re focused on [COVID-19], we’re focused on coronavirus mitigation and trying to do our best to suppress the spread,” said Newsom. “At the same time, we’ve got to mitigate and suppress these fires as we move into wildfire season. This is a top priority of this state, this legislature and this administration, and I want folks to know we are not going to step back, despite the economic headwinds, from our responsibility to meet this moment as we try to meet so many other moments in the midst of this crisis.”
The total number of COVID cases in California to has increased to 71,141, with 2,934 total deaths in the state as of Tuesday.