Climate change fuels California emphasis on preventing fires

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Having spent billions of dollars in a losing battle to control wildfires in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday approved nearly $1 billion in new spending aimed at stopping the blazes before they start.

California spent $3.4 billion on wildfire protection last year, more than quadruple the level 15 years ago. But state officials have spent most of that money on extinguishing fires, a job that has become harder as the fires have gotten bigger and hotter because of climate change.

Thursday’s action brings California’s total wildfire prevention budget this year to more than $1.5 billion. It’s the final piece of the state’s record-setting $262.5 billion operating budget, a spending plan augmented by soaring state revenues from a rising stock market and unprecedented federal assistance because of the pandemic.

About 16,000 fires have burned in California since the start of 2020, scorching more than 10,000 square miles (25,899 square kilometers). That’s about 6.5% of California’s land. Nine states are smaller than that.

Six of the seven largest fires in state history have occurred since August 2020. This year, for the first time, two wildfires crested the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said. One of those fires forced the first complete evacuation of the city of South Lake Tahoe, shuttering the major tourist attraction.

The fires are so intense they are even threatening 3,000-year-old Sequoia trees that are largely resistant to fires. In Sequoia National Park, officials had to wrap the base of the General Sherman — the world’s largest tree by volume — in fire-resistant material to save it from an encroaching wildfire.

“You can’t rebuild a giant Sequoia in a few years and have a groundbreaking. I mean, you can replant it and come back in 3,000 years to enjoy,” Newsom said. “That’s why we’re here with a deep sense of urgency, appreciation, humility, as human beings.”

Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms. Climate change has made the West hotter and drier in the past 30 years.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved $500 million in emergency spending for wildfire prevention, an unusual move prompted by a severe drought that has dried the state’s forests, leaving them more vulnerable to wildfires.

This month, largely because of a record-breaking budget surplus, lawmakers added nearly $1 billion in new spending to that total — money that Newsom approved Thursday.

Most of it will pay for things like clearing brush and dead trees that act as kindling when fires start, causing them to quickly burn out of control before firefighters can contain them.

There’s money to hire inspectors to make sure newer homes built in the state’s wildfire-prone areas comply with building codes requiring fire-resistant materials. And there’s money for the state to intentionally set fires when conditions are right to burn away fuel that would otherwise help larger fires burn during the dry season.

The funding is part of a $15 billion spending package on climate, which Newsom called the largest commitment in the state’s history. The spending includes money approved earlier this year and commitments to spend more in the future.

Also on Thursday, Newsom approved $1.2 billion for things like water recycling projects, cleaning up contaminated water sources and grants to help communities pan for climate change.

Republicans have criticized the spending because it does not include money for water storage projects, like building new reservoirs. California voters approved about $2.7 billion in 2014 for water storage projects. But so far, none of those have been built.

And some environmental groups bemoaned the budget for not doing more to wean the state off its dependence on fossil fuels.

“Fifteen billion dollars is a lot of money, but if the governor really wants to future-proof California as he said, then he must know that throwing money at the problem while continuing to approve new fossil fuel permits that are driving the climate chaos, is nonsensical,” said Amy Moas, a senior climate campaigner affiliated with Greenpeace USA. “It is like trying to mop up an overflowing bathtub without first turning off the faucet.”

California has more than 60,000 active oil wells, but permits for all types of oil drilling have declined considerably this year. The Newsom administration denied 21 fracking permits in July, a process used to extract oil and gas from deep underground.

In April, Newsom signed an executive order aimed at banning all oil extraction in California by 2045.