Governor Gavin Newsom declared two States of Emergency late on Tuesday because of massive wildfires in Del Norte County and Siskiyou County, becoming the first fires to receive such a declaration this wildfire season.
The 2023 Wildfire season has, to date, been more quiet than previous years in California. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the series of atmospheric storms between January and March of this year, as well increased meltwater later in the year as a result of high snow buildup, stopped all critically dry fuel moisture alignments until the recent summer months. Helping matters this month was a rare tropical storm, Hilary, which drenched much of the Southern part of the state and preempted many possible wildfire events as a result.
The largest fire so far this year, the York Fire in San Bernadino County, covered around 94,000 acres and destroyed a total of 3 buildings between late July and Early August. However, that fire, despite it’s size and also spreading into Clark County Nevada, was not declared a State of Emergency because it was located in an entirely rural area and did not threaten any populated area.
With conditions beginning to dry in Northern California, two major fire systems began earlier this month in Del Norte County and Siskiyou County. The Smith River Complex Fire in Del Norte County began first on August 15th. Originally starting as the Holiday, Diamond, Kelly, and Prescott fires, all four eventually joined together later in the month. As of Wednesday morning, the fire has spread to over 75,000 acres and is currently threatening many homes and businesses in the area because of continued high winds. Because of the windy conditions, only 7% of the Smith River Complex is currently contained.
In Siskiyou County, the Happy Camp Complex Fire started later in August and so far has only spread to around 22,000 acres with 39% containment as of Wednesday morning. However, the Happy Camp Complex is closer to populated areas and has so far burned down 9 structures as a result. Possible precipitation is also on the way later in the week.
With both fires approaching more populated areas, and both already proving more destructive than the larger York Fire earlier this year, Gov. Newsom declared two states of emergency on Tuesday. According to a statement from the Governor’s office, the two proclamations will make it easier for contractors to restore power in the affected areas by removing some requirements and fees for contractors. Fees for replacements of destroyed state documents caused by the fires will also be waived as a result.
“The proclamations support the ongoing emergency response to the fires, which have destroyed homes, caused power outages, and driven the evacuation of residents,” said the Governor’s office. “Among other provisions, the proclamations waive certain licensing requirements and fees for out-of-state contractors and others working with California utilities to restore electricity. The proclamations also support impacted residents by easing access to unemployment benefits and waiving fees to replace driver’s licenses and records such as marriage and birth certificates.”
Two new states of emergency
Despite the two new states of emergency this week, fire experts have said that it would likely continue to be a mild wildfire season in the state. Politically, the reduced number of wildfire proclamations could also help lead to a shift in funding and bills. Large wildfires in the late 2010s and early 2020s, such as the destructive and deadly Camp Fire in 2018 and California’s largest wildfire to date, the August Complex Fire, in 2020, helped spur major legislation in recent years. In particular, Cal Fire’s budget for combatting and preventing wildfires has gone up from $800 million a year in 2005‑06 to nearly $4 billion a year today.
However, 2023 has been the year of rainfall and flooding, with most disaster-related legislation and funding proposals being flood or water related. Because of the storms from earlier this year, the 2023-2024 state budget saw a large increase in flood management funding, with Governor Newsom himself even authoring many executive orders approving of various flood prevention measures. With Tropical Storm Hilary renewing flood concerns earlier this month, and wildfires not flaring up like they have in recent past seasons, wildfire-related political measures could now see a significant dip as a result.
“This is just a down year,” said wildfire researcher Tom Alvarez. “Last year in California everyone was talking about the drought and wildfires. There were people dying and towns being destroyed, and memories of Paradise were still very strong as well. This year we just haven’t had that. Drought concerns were erased early on in the year, and every time wildfires came up, something came up. There was a lot of carried-over wildfire bills and such earlier this year, but the rainfall and snow and floods pushed those out of view of most. It’s been flood this and flood that since.”
“And when we finally had a bad wildfire, York, which was destroying endangered trees and causing big problems, Hurricane Hilary appeared, and once again, removed those concerns. Now we have two emergency declarations, but because of flooding still taking center stage because of all those bills in Sacramento, attention is still on those.”
“The wildfire threat is still very prevalent. We get another dry year in 2024, I guarantee you it will be nothing but wildfire stories once again. California lucked out with a rainy year, but because that pushed off wildfires away from many peoples radar, we’re seeing not as much concern for them now. This is supposed to be an ongoing problem, as the problem is only going to get worse. But, even with these two emergency proclamations, we’re not seeing the attention over the fires like in past years. We’re all hoping that we don’t see less funding or less resources being thrown our way as a result, because a big fire could come out of nowhere, and when that happens, you want to have as much at your disposal as possible.”
As of Wednesday, Newsom has yet to give a direct quote on the new states of emergency.
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