California Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out Wednesday how the state will prepare for the inevitable: an upcoming season of potentially disastrous wildfires and the ongoing coronavirus public health emergency.
“We gotta walk and chew gum at the same time,” Newsom said, describing his office’s dual missions of fighting wildfires and preventing further spread of COVID-19. Newsom spoke in a news conference in El Dorado County, near Sacramento.
“This year’s fire season will be ferocious,” Newsom warned, noting that there has been little precipitation so far this year, creating dryer conditions that could contribute to fires that start easier and spread farther and faster.
California has experienced record-breaking wildfires that have only gotten worse in recent years. There have been 1,130 wildfires so far this year — about 60% more than in the same period last year.
The governor plans to release a revised state budget on Thursday that includes a proposed increase of $85 million to go to CalFire to hire hundreds of additional much-needed firefighters across the state.
Newsom also hopes to dedicate about $50 million in grants to local counties to help mitigate the effects of power outages meant to prevent fires. Last year, massive outages by Pacific Gas and Electric left millions without power just as many were being forced to evacuate wildfires.
State lawmakers will vote on the budget later this year.
Mark Ghilarducci, director of California’s office of emergency services, said his team is working on new protocols to evacuate people from fire zones safely given the coronavirus threat and the need to maintain social distancing.
“Evacuating in a COVID management situation, it would look different,” Ghilarducci said, adding that his team will work through options “in real time.” Challenges include how to separate COVID-positive evacuees from others.
Rather than placing cots side by side in big open spaces such as gyms or Red Cross tent shelters as in the past, officials may have to install partitions and air purifiers or even secure hotel rooms for evacuees.
“People are still dying from this virus. … People must take this seriously,” Newsom said, adding that people taking actions to stem the spread of the virus could save the lives of first responders such as firefighters and medical personnel on the front lines of fire emergencies.
“Those out there who think they’re immune, … I hope you’ll consider our first responders, the heroes of this community, because we’re not out of the woods with this virus,” Newsom said.
As wildfire season in California looms in the summer and fall, Newsom said he was “mindful” of the threat and of the “understandable anxiety this time of year presents for people, in addition to what’s going on with COVID-19.”
Californians every year have to deal with the stress of wondering whether wildfires will hit their communities. Of the five largest wildfires in California history, four happened this decade alone.
In 2017, wildfires near Santa Rosa killed 44 people ― the deadliest at the time, at least until the Camp Fire the following year surpassed it, killed 85 people and ravaged the town of Paradise.
In recent months, California has faced a persistent threat from the coronavirus, with more than 72,000 confirmed cases and nearly 3,000 deaths as of Wednesday. The number of new cases and deaths has plateaued in the state for “many, many weeks now,” Newsom said, and the state has not yet seen a significant decline in its COVID-19 figures.
Much of the state remains under strict stay-at-home orders to prevent further spread of the virus. But this week, 10 rural counties with fewer cases — including El Dorado and Butte counties in Northern California — have been allowed to reopen businesses, including restaurants.
Asked how Newsom plans to pay for the state’s spending on wildfire prevention and coronavirus response, Newsom provided grim numbers. The state has gone from a projected $6 billion surplus to tens of billions in projected deficit.
Newsom’s revised budget includes some cuts in proposed spending compared to his January proposal on CalFire and the office of emergency services. These are part of the “sobering and deep challenges we have to address head-on,” Newsom said.
“These deficits are so pronounced for one thing: COVID-19,” Newsom added, calling for the federal government to “do more to support states.”