In summary

As more than two dozen fires still rage, Newsom stands amid charred parkland, vowing to ratchet up the state’s ‘inadequate’ plan to cut carbon emissions.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed today to accelerate the state’s efforts to tackle climate change, announcing “this is a climate damn emergency” after surveying the fire-ravaged Oroville State Recreation Area.

Ten people have died in the North Complex Fire, which has burned more than a quarter million acres of Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties and destroyed 2,000 structures since it began 23 days ago. The wildfire, one of 28 throughout the state, is only 23% contained.

California wildfires have already killed 19 people this year and burned more than 3.1 million acres, an area bigger than Connecticut, according to the state’s firefighting agency Cal Fire. That acreage is 26 times more than the amount that burned by this time last year. And the worst may be yet to come: California’s most destructive wildfires have historically flared up in the fall. 

“We have to step up our game. As we lead the nation in low carbon green growth, we’ll have to fast track our efforts.”

gov. gavin newsom

Newsom acknowledged the role of forest management over the past century in failing to control the catastrophic blazes, adding, “that’s one point. But it’s not the point.” 

On the heels of the state’s hottest August on record, searing September temperatures and fires burning through 147 million trees that died during the drought, Newsom said that the role of climate change in fueling conflagrations couldn’t be denied. 

“Mother Nature is physics, biology and chemistry. She bats last and she bats 1,000. That’s the reality,” he said. “The debate is over, around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes.” 

California law already calls for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, which Newsom called “nice” but “inadequate to meet the challenges to the state.” And in June, California EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld pledged to re-evaluate the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program

“Across the entire spectrum, our goals are inadequate,” Newsom said.

He vowed to accelerate efforts to decarbonize the economy, increase the number of electric vehicles on California’s roads, electrify transportation and green the state’s soil, industrial and agricultural policies. 

But his climate promises were light on details. Asked if he was referring to new legislation, he said only that his administration is putting together new strategies to fast-track more ambitious goals. 

Newsom directed his cabinet members “to dust off four current processes, our current strategies and accelerate all of them across the board.

“We have to step up our game. As we lead the nation in low carbon green growth, we’ll have to fast track our efforts.”

A United Nations report released this week concluded that planet-warming emissions declined this year due to the pandemic, but they already are rebounding, and 2020 is still set to close out the warmest five-year period on record. Global emissions must drop 7.6 percent each year over the next decade to meet the UN’s temperature target and offset the most extreme effects of climate change, including intensifying wildfires.

Newsom’s comments came on the heels of the State Water Resources Control Board’s decision last week to extend the lives of polluting gas-fired power plants along the Southern California coast by between one and three years. The vote came after rolling blackouts sporadically cut the lights in parts of California.  

“It was absolutely not a mistake. It was the right thing to do,” Newsom said, of keeping the plants online. “It was necessary in order to create and provide for reliability.” 

Gov. Gavin Newsom tours North Complex Fire zone with California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld and California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot in Butte County on Friday, Sep 11, 2020 outside of Oroville. Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr., The Sacramento Bee

Newsom also took a step today toward improving opportunities for inmate crews who help fight California’s wildfires. At an ash-covered table, he signed a new law reducing barriers for incarcerated firefighters to apply to expunge their records on release, which is critical for eligibility for many firefighting jobs. 

“This bill that I’m about to sign will give those prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession that they’ve been trained,” he said.

Surveying the Loafer Creek area on the southeast side of the state park at Lake Oroville, Newsom was joined by Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Cal EPA’s Blumenfeld, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Office of Emergency Services, and Matt Teague, district superintendent with state parks.

The group walked a few hundred feet through the woods, past a bulldozed fire break,  fallen trees, and some still-smoldering logs, according to the pool coverage provided by the Sacramento Bee. Several prescribed burns had occurred there in recent years, Teague said. 

As they walked, air quality at the park registered 508, considered hazardous.

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Rachel Becker is a journalist reporting on California’s complex water challenges and water policy issues for CalMatters. Rachel has a background in biology, with master's degrees in both immunology and...