California Gov Gavin Newsom meets with emergency responders at the State Operations Center in Colfax, Calif., on Jan. 8, 2019. (Governor’s office photo)

California Wildfire Preparedness Now Focused on ‘Scientific and Social’ Vulnerability

California Gov. Gavin Newsom began his term this week by signing an executive order directing new wildfire risk mitigation efforts that include assessing “socioeconomic factors and vulnerable populations that exacerbate the human toll of wildfires.”

More than 7,600 wildfires scorched the Golden State last year cutting through 1,846,445 acres — including the devastating Camp Fire in Northern California, which killed 86 people and destroyed 18,804 structures.

Six of the 10 worst fires in the state’s history have occurred in the past two years, and Newsom’s executive order pinned the “present emergency condition” on “the combined factors of fire exclusion, forest management policies that created overgrown and overcrowded forests, a rapidly changing climate, and a historic drought with accompanying bark beetle epidemics.”

Newsom’s 2019-2020 budget request calls for more year-round fire crews and more firefighting equipment and fire-prevention efforts.

“It’s not a coincidence that my first full day as governor is focused on emergency preparedness. It’s deliberate, it reflects intentionality, and it speaks to the priority that I place on emergency preparedness, response and recovery,” Newsom said Tuesday while visiting emergency managers at the State Operations Center and touring a high-risk fire area.

The governor’s order to study fire risk management with a socioeconomic focus was the result of recent rapidly evolving blazes leaving certain groups of residents without the means to flee, such as elderly, low-income, and isolated individuals.

“In order to prioritize the most at-risk communities, the state must consider two coequally important factors of vulnerability: scientific and social,” says the order. “California must access the best available science about dangerous fuel conditions, wind patterns, fire behavior, and other scientific indicators. But of equal importance are social vulnerability factors including social isolation, poverty, language barriers, and other access and functional needs. Communities with high preponderance of physical fire danger and high indicators of social vulnerability deserve the state’s highest attention.”

Another executive order signed by Newsom establishes an Innovation Procurement Sprint to invite specific problem-solving conduits between the private sector and agencies; the governor’s office said the goal of this new process is to have “cutting-edge technology in the hands of emergency responders by next fire season.”

Rhys D.J. Williams, former chief of staff in the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, will fill the newly created role of senior advisor on emergency preparedness and management focusing on agency coordination in the governor’s office. Newsom is keeping key public safety leaders in their roles, reappointing Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) Director Mark Ghilarducci, California Military Department Adjutant General David Baldwin, and California Highway Patrol Commissioner Warren Stanley, and appointing acting director of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) Thomas Porter to the permanent role.

CALFIRE will take lead on a report to the governor with recommendations for immediate, medium-term and long-term actions on fire and fuels management methods, policy changes, risk assessment methodology and more.

Newsom, along with Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and Kate Brown of Oregon, sent a letter to President Trump on Tuesday asking him to direct the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service to “double the investment made in managing federal forestlands.”

“Our states have invested heavily in managing our own wildlands, working with private landowners to fire-harden communities, and enhancing our response capabilities. California has committed to a five-year, $1 billion forest management plan, and has already invested $111.3 million on forest health since 2017, of which 49 percent was spent on managing federally owned land, while the state doubled the size of its actively managed lands to half a million acres. For this coming biennium, Washington’s budget will exceed $85 million to address forest health, wildland fire projects and suppression, and we expect this number will continue to grow in future biennia. And in Oregon, annual fire-fighting costs have skyrocketed. Since the signing of the state’s Good Neighbor Authority Master Agreement in 2016, roughly $4 million is invested each biennium in accelerating the pace and scale of restoration on federal forest lands,” the governors wrote.

“We are doing what is needed to mitigate fire danger within our own borders. In each of our states, we are adding more and year-round fire crews to acknowledge the reality that fire season no longer lasts just six months. We are investing in cutting-edge technology to detect and fight fires, and we are pioneering new strategies for large-scale forest management projects,” they added. “In contrast to all of our state efforts, the U.S. Forest Service has seen its budget cut by more than $2 billion since 2016.”

They noted that “since 2017, fires on federally owned lands burned a significantly larger footprint than fires on state-owned lands in California and Oregon.”

“The stark reality we now face is a longer fire season, driven by multi-year droughts and higher than average temperatures, creating extreme tinderbox conditions across the West Coast. While the up-front costs of responsible lands management create budget pressures, they pale in comparison to the longer-term human and financial costs of doing too little.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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