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Gov. Newsom Declares Statewide Emergency, Waives Environmental Reviews On Forest Managment Projects

The Mendocino Complex fire, which burned in Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn Counties last summer, was the largest wildfire complex in California history.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a "statewide emergency on wildfires" Friday in a move to speed up prevention projects before the next fire season.

He announced the declaration in Lake County, which has been devastated by recent wildfires, including last year's Mendocino Complex fires.

The governor's office says the executive order will expedite forest management projects intended to protect 200 communities prone to fire risk.

“The increasing wildfire risks we face as a state mean we simply can’t wait until a fire starts in order to start deploying emergency resources,” Newsom said in a statement before the announcement. “California need(s) sustained focus and immediate action in order to better protect our communities.”

Some environmental groups, such as The Nature Conservancy, applauded Newsom’s emphasis on protecting communities from the threats of destructive wildfires.

“The status quo isn't working. We need to accelerate an approach to active management of fire across California," said Jay Ziegler, director of external affairs and policy at the Nature Conservancy. "Especially given the realities of climate change that are settling in upon us. When we have eight months of dry weather … we have unprecedented risk.”

The plan comes a month after Cal Fire recommended 35 forest-health projects that will help protect communities from wildfires. The goal is to get as many of these projects finished before fire season. To do this, Newsom's order waives some environmental review, allows California to set up contracts without competitive bidding and makes it easier to cut down trees in those areas.

“Some of these projects could take two years to get done or we can get them done in the next two months. That's our choice,” Newsom said at a press conference Friday.

Critics of the order don't like the idea of bypassing guidelines put in place to protect the environment.

“We have a real concern about any of the suspension of the normal regulations you would have to go through if you're substantially changing the landscape," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "It could have negative consequences for the long term.”

Phillips says she's reviewed the 35 projects to be expedited, and while she agrees with many, questions whether are all good uses of public resources.

Others also share Newsom’s desire for urgent action, but think funds should be spent in a different way.

“Cal Fire is thinning forests away from where most Californians live and far from areas with big risks of wind-driven fires,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The governor should reject this doomed, destructive approach and direct funding toward proven fire-safety strategies like retrofitting homes and improving defensible space around them.”

She says the best way to keep homes safe is by retrofitting homes with things like fire-resistant roofing and guards on rain gutters to prevent roofs from catching on fire.

Newsom also announced a $50 million public awareness campaign and changes intended to modernize the state’s contracting and procurement processes for wildfire management.

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio