Gov. Gavin Newsom assumed office on Jan. 7 and the next day, he issued an executive order for the preparation and submission to him of “… recommendations of the most impactful administrative, regulatory and policy changes or waivers the Governor can initiate that are necessary to prevent and mitigate wildfires to the greatest extent possible, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and protection of public health.”

Cal Fire submitted its report last week. The agency identified 35 high priority projects “that can be implemented immediately to help reduce public safety risk for over 200 communities.” However, only four of the projects are in Southern California. The most vulnerable communities are in Northern California, based on the report’s results, which employed various socioeconomic data to rank projects.

Two had a fire risk of less than 10. The project evaluation “considered socioeconomic characteristics of the communities that would be protected, including data on poverty levels, residents with disabilities, language barriers, residents over 65 or under five years of age, and households without a car.”

As an example, while the report includes the Paradise Fire, where many of the deaths were elderly people, it does not appear to include access as a measure of safety. While county, state and federal officials frequently warned Riverside County residents of the dangers of flooding and road closures following the Cranston and Holy fires, ingress and egress corridors were not part of Cal Fire’s calculation of high priority projects. 

The report describes the projects as “… local projects that can be addressed urgently in partnership with communities to make a difference this wildfire season. Examples include removal of hazardous dead trees, vegetation clearing, creation of fuel breaks and community defensible spaces, and creation of ingress and egress corridors.” 

Apparently, the projects for which the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council received funding, and are in a high fire risk designated area, were not rated high priority. This is an area that has experienced two major conflagrations within five years and a third about 12 years ago where the lives of five firefighters were lost.

“It is disappointing that Cal Fire didn’t include the Holy or Cranston fire areas, they are still fire prone,” said state Sen. Jeff Stone, who represents the Hill. He also expressed his concern about the limited access and egress from the Hill, especially during fire season.

The 35 projects were not the only recommendations contained in the report. The authors recommended deploying National Guard with Cal Fire to establish bases to work on fuels treatments. More housing for seasonal employees was the third priority.

The report also recommended suspending regulatory requirements for assessing fuels reduction projects and streamlining requirements for permits, licenses and contracts.

Stone, who served in August on the Legislature’s ad hoc committee that developed SB 901, feels  the effort to lift and loosen the regulatory and legislative constraints to fuels reduction is valuable.

“Cal Fire does need bold legislation and leadership, which will not impede it from doing its job,” he said. Emphasizing this point, he repeated that his principal problem with SB 901 was the five-year window for expedited fuels maintenance. With so many dead trees throughout the state, Stone argued for a 10-year window.

Funding and staffing needs for Cal Fire also were listed as an immediate priority. Newsom requested almost another $100 million for Cal Fire in his current budget proposal. This would fund 13 new engines, air tankers, fire detection cameras, and staffing for CCC crews and equipment.

On March 6, the Legislative Analyst’s Office presented to the Legislature the following recommendation: “Cal Fire, in coordination with OES, to provide an assessment of existing state, mutual aid, and federal fire response capacity; gaps in capacity; and where additional resources would be most beneficial.”

Longer term, the report recommended that more state agencies sign memoranda of understandings to help create fuels reduction. Also, the report urged Cal Fire to find more options to encourage home owners to harden their homes with the Wildfire Urban Interface areas. The latter included a longer term goal of possibly strengthening codes for defensible space, including financial penalties.

Neither Cal Fire’s Sacramento Information Officer Scott McLean, nor Riverside County’s Fire Chief Shawn Newman responded to calls and emails to discuss the report. The original request was made Thursday, March 7.

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