Newsom overstated California's wildfire prevention efforts: report

Newsom overstated California's wildfire prevention efforts: report
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California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomAppeals court blocks California vaccine mandate for prison workers Apple, Nordstrom stores hit in latest smash-and-grab robberies Ted Cruz ribs Newsom over vacation in Mexico: 'Cancun is much nicer than Cabo' MORE (D) overstated California’s wildfire prevention efforts, according to an investigation published Wednesday by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom.

California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (Cal Fire) in February 2019 launched 35 "priority projects," according to CapRadio, which were meant to be implemented to help decrease the safety risk for more than 200 of California’s most wildfire-vulnerable communities.

The measures came in response to an executive order signed by Newsom targeting the way the state approached wildfire prevention, CapRadio reported.

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More than two years later, the investigation discovered that Newsom has completed just 13 percent of the job he has promoted on the highest priority projects.

The revelations come as California is facing record levels of acres burned in the state. In 2020, according to CapRadio, 4.3 million acres burned, more than doubling the previous record, which was set in 2018.

The investigation also found that the governor exaggerated the number of acres the state treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns by 690 percent. The news outlets noted that those were the same forestry projects the governor said had to be prioritized for the state’s vulnerable communities.

In a statement to The Hill, Lisa Lien-Mager, deputy secretary for communications at the California Natural Resources Agency, noted that “project area” and “treated acreage” for fuel reduction projects are “not always the same thing.”

She said that the 35 priority projects “benefitted a total area of 90,000 acres - even though not every single acre within that was actually ‘treated.’”

The news organization's investigation found that Newsom’s claim that the priority projects helped fire prevention work on 90,000 acres was false. The investigation uncovered that the actual number is actually 11,399.

Lien-Mager, however, contended that the actions Cal Fire has taken thus far on the 35 priority projects “have collectively protected 90,000 acres near some of the most wildfire-vulnerable communities in California.”

Fuel reduction rates have also plummeted under Newsom, after an initial spike during his first year in office, according to the investigation. They decreased by half in 2020, reaching levels below Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) time in office.

The investigation also revealed that Newsom cut about $150 million from the Cal Fire wildfire prevention budget.

Lien-Mager rejected that claim, however, writing that Newsom “had not reduced funding for wildfire prevention,” which she showed had almost doubled over one year.

The number of acres treated by Cal Fire decreased under Newsom’s tenure, according to the news groups. The department has treated only 32,000 acres in 2020, which is half of the 64,000 acres treated in 2019.

As of Memorial Day this year, the department has treated 24,000 acres.

Lien-Mager noted, however, that the pandemic and “an unprecedented wildfire season” influenced Cal Fire’s ability to complete the treatment work in 2020.

Newsom, according to the news organizations, is now trying to make up for his recent losses. He has proposed allocating $1.2 billion from the state’s surplus to “wildfire resiliency” funding for the next budget.

Chief Thom Porter, the head of Cal Fire, said that the figures referred to by Newsom were wrong, and he took responsibility for the false statements.

Porter said the department did not do “our job in educating the public, nor the governor’s office” about how to discuss the wildfire prevention measures.

He also confirmed to the news organizations that the department missed its fuel reduction goals in 2020, saying “It’s not something that I’m comfortable with. … It is something that I’m working to reconcile and to correct for the future.”

Lien-Mager, however, said Porter did not suggest in his interview that the 90,000 acre number “is an inaccurate description of the projects areas collectively affected by the 35 projects.”

Lien-Mager wrote that the California Natural Resources Agency is “proud of the work the state is doing as we continue to prioritize wildfire prevention and commit significant resources to increase the pace and scale of the work.”

Updated 10:55 p.m.