In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom has misled Californians about what the state has done to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

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By Scott Wilk, Special to CalMatters

State Sen. Scott Wilk, a Republican from Santa Clarita, represents California’s 21st Senate District, He is the Senate Republican Leader.

Governing a state is hard work, but governors aren’t supposed to mislead citizens, make up sympathetic stories or create rules they neglect to follow. Yet Gov. Gavin Newsom is a repeat offender of all those. 

His latest offense? Fudging the numbers on the state’s wildfire prevention efforts.

Wildfires are burning vast swaths of California – families evacuated, habitat lost, homes, businesses and communities incinerated. Californians, assured repeatedly that wildfire prevention was a top priority of the governor, have learned otherwise.

Newsom not only has failed to invest in projects that would protect Californians’ lives and homes, he also has misled people about what has been done.

The “fudging” concerns an initiative he ordered to big fanfare at an event his first full day in office. From that Jan. 8, 2019 press conference in Colfax: “I place no greater emphasis and energy and sense of urgency than on the issue of public safety … And in particular the issues of emergency preparedness … We will place an historic investment in our emergency planning and emergency preparation in this state.”

Following that, Cal Fire identified 35 “priority projects” that could be implemented immediately to help reduce public safety risk for more than 200 communities. The projects, totaling about 90,000 acres, included removal of hazardous dead trees, vegetation clearing, creation of fuel breaks and community defensible spaces, and creation of ingress and egress corridors.

Cal Fire also identified “broader solutions” the state needed to implement to complete the projects, including one to “suspend regulatory requirements as needed to complete fuels reduction projects in 2019.”

A year later, in a January 2020 press release, Newsom declared mission accomplished, boasting, “The projects collectively have treated 90,000 acres.”

Capital Public Radio and NPR analyzed the project data and learned Cal Fire actually treated only “11,399 acres, or about 13% of the amount cited by Newsom.”

In an email to Capital Public Radio, Cal Fire PIO Daniel Berlant reluctantly acknowledged, “The 90k acre figure was the overall project area, but not necessarily the area treated.”

That doesn’t jibe with what Newsom told the public, nor with how Cal Fire described the projects. Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told Capital Public Radio that the state “was never going to be able to tackle all 90,000 acres in 2019,” and “We didn’t have all of the environmental clearance that we were going to need to do all of that work,” Porter said.

For whatever the reason, Newsom grossly exaggerated the state’s progress on wildfire prevention. Despite his claims, the safety plan as promised to the public did not happen. Moreover, he cut $150 million from Cal Fire’s wildfire prevention budget.

California had one of the worst fire seasons ever recorded in 2019, and according to the Capital Public Radio/NPR investigation, California’s fuel reduction efforts actually dropped by 50% in 2020.

The governor cannot play politics when lives, habitat and communities are at risk. That’s why Senate Republicans called for an oversight hearing and an independent audit on the state’s wildfire prevention efforts.

Due to the scathing publicity, an Assembly hearing was scheduled for Aug. 18, but on Aug. 16, Democratic leadership postponed it with no date to reschedule it. This year’s session ends in three weeks, the state is ablaze, and Democrats canceled the only scheduled hearing that would have exposed the state’s mismanagement of wildfire prevention.

Obviously, the governor and his allies in the Legislature want to avoid scrutiny of the issue right before the recall election, but that political game comes at the expense of Californians’ safety.

Californians deserve better, most particularly the millions affected by wildfires. They are justified in demanding accountability. We all deserve an honest governor, not a misleader.

But hey, Newsom got his victory lap.

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