The June 2021 report which exposed that Gov. Gavin Newsom misled the public about his wildfire prevention efforts by 690%, should have obligated applicable state agencies to act immediately. There are still many unanswered questions. The Globe has been following up on why Newsom mislead the public, and who is to blame for the worst fire season on record. Is it the governor? Is it CalFire? Is it agencies directly commanded by Gov. Newsom?
The fact remains that California’s forests are still a lethal tinderbox as wildfire prevention efforts have not been ramped up to mitigate the now annual wildfire threat to homes, businesses and entire communities. Instead, 2021 is one of the worse fire seasons ever in state history, with wildfires still burning. As California Congressman Tom McClintock says, “Excess timber comes out of the forest in only two ways – it is either carried out or it burns out.”
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The joint CapRadio and NPR investigation unveiled in June 2021, Governor Newsom was found to have overstated the number of areas treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns by 690%, the Globe reported. Governor Newsom claimed that, due to his executive order, 35 of his priority projects had treated over 90,000 acres with wildfire prevention treatments. However, data from the state only showed 11,399 acres treated.
“The data show Cal Fire treated 64,000 acres in 2019, but only 32,000 acres in 2020 and 24,000 acres through Memorial Day this year,” CapRadio and NPR reported, explaining that the governor even “disinvested in wildfire prevention.”
In the article, the CalFire Chief Thom Porter took the blame for misleading the governor: “The head of Cal Fire, Chief Thom Porter, did grant an interview. He acknowledged the figures cited by Newsom were incorrect and took responsibility for the governor’s misstatements.”
Despite Newsom’s bold public pronouncements, Porter, the chief of Cal Fire, said the state was never going to be able to tackle all 90,000 acres in 2019.
“We didn’t have all of the environmental clearance that we were going to need to do all of that work,” CalFire Chief Porter said. “Nor did we have all of the agreements with landowners completely in place.”
And that is the crux of the issue: what were and are the environmental clearances needed, and who approves these? Why were they not granted knowing California’s recent and very deadly wildfire history? California’s worst fire season on record could have been averted – we knew what would happen and why.
Yet CalFire was and remains immobilized by the environmental clearance needed to do their jobs.
The Globe has asked two state agencies – CalFire and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) – the following questions in the earnest quest to find out how we get broad forest management mitigation in California:
- What are the environmental clearances needed to approve wildfire prevention and clean up efforts? Is it the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)?
- Are there CEQA exemptions to allow the wildfire prevention and clean up take place?
- What are the hold ups? Legal/lawsuits?
- Why were projects sidelined?
- Is there enough manpower to accomplish all of the wildfire forest prevention work?
As the state explains, “All state and local agencies must give consideration to environmental protection in regulating public and private activities” (including wildfire prevention efforts). “California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) provides a formal process for regulating entities to evaluate and mitigate environmental impacts that may occur as a result of a particular development.”
This is the arduous CEQA work flow chart:
While the governor’s Office of Planning and Research is the clearinghouse for CEQA projects, “OPR, coordinates the State-level review of Environmental Documents prepared pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”
OPR may be the gatekeeper, and as such, processes the CEQA documents. Are they doing it in a timely manner? What are the priorities for CEQA’s environmental review projects, again, knowing California’s recent and very deadly wildfire history?
As the flow chart indicates, determining if the project is exempt is almost the first task.
If Gov. Newsom made wildfire prevention a priority on day-one in office, and many promises since, exempting the forest clean up and wildfire prevention projects from CEQA should have been the priority pre-requisite in order to prevent deadly wildfires.
“Everybody has had enough,” the governor said, announcing he’d signed a “sweeping executive order” overhauling the state’s approach to wildfire prevention. Climate change was sparking fires more frequent, ferocious, and far-reaching than ever before, Newsom said, and confronting them would have to become a year-round effort.”
“The state’s response, Newsom added, “fundamentally has to change.”
While Gov. Newsom’s executive order “overhauling the state’s approach to wildfire prevention,” blames “climate change – persistent drought, warmer temperatures, and more severe winds” for creating “conditions that will lead to more frequent and destructive wildfires,” the executive order also admits “historically, fires lit by Native Americans and lightning strikes cleared the forest of surface fuels on a regular cycle to manage vegetation.”
However, the governor’s executive order really only authorized a report from CalFire “with 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.” The non-sweeping, superficial Executive Order is below.
As Rep. McClintock explains, since 1980, the increase of environmental laws have produced an 80 percent decline in timber harvested out of the federal forests and a concomitant increase in acreage destroyed by fire. And environmental laws have made the management of forest lands all but impossible.
The Globe has not heard back from CalFire or the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, but will report again when we do. We did not make a public records request for internal communications, rather for procedural information. However, it appears our questions are ones that state agencies do not want to have to answer, principally because so many in government don’t think they have to answer to the people, and others are terrified to.Wildfire Mgmt EO