NAPA — Behind California Governor Gavin Newsom as he addressed here Thursday, behind the Cal Fire personnel lined up behind him, behind the gleaming trucks and helicopters meant to symbolize the state’s investment in firefighting equipment, were hills scorched by the deadly Atlas Fire in 2017.
Wildfire is never far from the talk here in this flame-ravaged region of Northern California, making the Cal firehouse just east of Napa a natural setting for Newsom’s recap of everything his administration has done to build preparedness and resilience. increase since he took office in 2019.
“Here we are at the end of fire season — not the end of fire season,” Newsom said after a brief briefing at Cal Fire Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit Chief Mike Marcucci.
“As we have all recognized, fire season is now year-round,” the governor said.
The visit came five years after the historic firestorm that ravaged Napa and Sonoma counties, and four years after the campfire destroyed Paradise in Butte County and took over as California’s worst wildfire on record.
Still, a warming, drought-stricken California is significantly better prepared to meet that challenge than it was a few years ago, Newsom argued.
He had substantial evidence to support the claim. The state has spent $2.8 billion over the past two years on equipment, fuel savings, and paving homes and communities.
Much of that has been spent removing brush in burn zones, largely through prescription burns. Cal Fire has done more than 100,000 acres of fuel mitigation every year since 2019.
The state fire department got a break from the mild weather this fall, giving staff an unexpected chance to treat an additional 20,000 acres over the past two months, Newsom said.
“We recognize that we have not made up for 100 years of neglect in that space,” the governor added. And yes, before you say the obvious, let me say the obvious. We still have a lot of work to do.”
To that end, the state has struck a deal with the federal government — “with support from a government that extends its hand, not its fist,” as Newsom put it, when he compared Joe Biden’s White House to Donald Trump’s. The goal is to reduce a total of 1 million hectares by 2025.
“Based on what we’ve just heard, I’m confident we’ll get there,” Newsom said.
Much of the money thrown at fire safety has gone to new equipment. According to Newsom, Cal Fire currently staffs 356 engines across California. On Monday, the agency will pull that back to 243 engines for the winter months.
Cal Fire has stockpiled a dozen Sikorsky Firehawk helicopters in recent years – they have faster response time and carry more water – and this year they added new aircraft capable of night missions.
The state also contracts with private companies that provide 18 helicopters and six fixed-wing aircraft. Those contracted craft have flown more than 2,700 hours this year, said Cal Fire Director Joe Tyler.
And in 2023, Newsom said, California will get the first of seven massive C-130 tankers.
This mobilization is already bearing fruit, the representatives argued.
Marcucci, Cal’s local fire chief, gave the Old Fire as an example. A month and a half before that fire moved down from Atlas Peak and burned 600 acres in June, making it the largest North Bay fire of 2022, Cal Fire had completed work on a six-mile fuel cut along Soda Canyon Road, in conjunction with the Napa County Fire Department and the Napa Community Firewise Foundation.
“And you can see roughly where the fire stopped at Soda Canyon Road,” Marcucci told Newsom at the fire station’s briefing. “It allowed firefighters to get in front of it. So that return on investment was immediate. The fire would not have ended like this if we had not been able to slow it down.”
No houses were lost in the Oude Brand.
Not everyone would agree with Newsom and his team’s rosy assessment. A pair of news accounts slammed Cal Fire almost simultaneously in June.
The first, by the nonprofit newsroom CalMatters, accused the state agency of overworking its firefighters through mandatory 21-day shifts and forced overtime. The debilitating wildfire seasons of recent years, the report said, contribute to a high rate of work-related accidents and mental trauma. The result was an exodus from the agency, with 10% of Cal Fire’s permanent, non-seasonal workforce leaving in the previous year.
California has added 1,350 staff members this year to help reduce that stress, Newsom said.
When asked about the psychological needs of Cal Fire personnel, the governor pointed to $55 million made available last year for the health of public safety personnel, including firefighters but also law enforcement.
“We are very aware of the importance of mindfulness and wellness more broadly,” Newsom said.
The other damning June report, from a public media collaboration called the California Newsroom, pointed out that Cal Fire’s strategy had emphasized emergency firefighting over healthy forest management. The cooperative’s investigation found that the agency’s forestry hirings stagnated while its firefighting workforce grew dramatically, and that, among other things, it had taken years to implement laws passed by the California legislature.
Leroy Westerling, a UC Merced professor who specializes in climate, ecosystem and wildfire interactions, praised much of the work the state has done.
That includes funding a climate assessment process he was involved in — it helps document changes in fuels and vegetation — and addressing inequality in poorer communities that bear the brunt of particulate pollution from wildfires.
“I think just anecdotally, by living in a fire-prone area, it’s clear that the state has ramped up available equipment, positioned crews and things like that,” Westerling said. “They’ve been able to keep it behind them and keep things under control with some fires that could really become a problem this year.”
There is also room for improvement, says Westerling.
He would like to see the California government work more effectively with federal agencies, as 57% of the landmass in the state, including national forests and parks, is federally owned. And he believes there is a need for stronger public communication about the threat we all face, and what our parched landscape is likely to look like if this era of drought continues.
“We need to figure out how to communicate those changes and make communities more resilient,” Westerling said. “It’s not like we’re going to bring the landscape back to how it used to be. It’s about how it will be in the future.”
You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or [email protected] On Twitter @Skinny_Post.