Gov. Gavin Newsom called for $105 million in increased wildfire safety funding Tuesday, saying the state needs to make prevention a higher priority in the wake of the devastating Camp Fire and the wine country fires of 2017.
Appearing on his first full day in office at a Cal Fire station a few miles from the Tahoe National Forest, Newsom said the new funding would come on top of $200 million already earmarked for forestry management by the Legislature last fall, bringing the total to $305 million in new spending.
Newsom, flanked by Cal Fire employees and emergency services officials, said he’ll ask the Legislature for funds to cover a wide variety of fire safety needs. He wants more helicopters, about 100 remote infrared cameras that can help detect fires, better alert systems and new technologies for tapping satellite images.
He also wants funding for mental health services for first responders, and more dollars to hire more Cal Fire firefighters.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
“Broad strokes, we are stepping up our game. I hear you, I get it, we have to do more,” Newsom said.
He gently scolded President Donald Trump’s administration for reducing federal fire-safety budgets by $2 billion but also reached out to Trump.
Newsom co-signed a letter, with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, appealing to Trump to work with the states on forest management. He said he wants the state and federal governments to cooperate “rather than talking past each other, talking down to each other.”
Newsom defended Trump’s much ridiculed statement, made during the Camp Fire devastation in Paradise in November, in which the president praised Finland for raking up its forests to reduce fire risks. “I think what he was talking about was defensible spaces,” Newsom said, referring to the practice of cleaning up brush around homes and other buildings.
Trump has blamed California for its wildfires, saying the state hadn’t done enough to clean up its forests — ignoring the fact that about 60 percent of California’s forests are on federal lands. The president struck a more conciliatory tone while visiting Paradise, promising to work with Newsom.
State and federal officials broadly agree that forests must be managed more aggressively, although some environmentalists warn that wildfires are being used as an excuse to clear cut forests.
As part of his initiative, Newsom said he wants to spend $10 million this year and $50 million next year on overhauling the state’s 911 system. He eventually wants the expenses to be covered by Californians through a fee on their monthly phone bills. He said the fee, which would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, would be “relatively modest” and he thinks would gain support from both parties.
“This one crosses Republicans and Democrats alike,” he said. A 911 fee was proposed in the Legislature last year but went nowhere.
Newsom declined to speak about the implications of PG&E filing for bankruptcy, which utility CEO Geisha Williams first raised last summer and has taken on greater urgency as the potential liabilities from the Camp Fire climb into the billions.
“I’m very sensitive to things governors say, particularly as it relates to the markets,” he said.
Newsom is expected to release his first state budget proposal on Thursday.