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After long delay, California lawmakers hold wildfire oversight hearing

National Interagency Fire Center

California lawmakers held an oversight hearing Tuesday to discuss catastrophic wildfires and how the state plans to spend this year’s record-setting investment to prevent them.

Lawmakers originally called for the hearing over the summer, after CapRadio published a series of investigative stories that found Gov. Gavin Newsom significantly overstated his administration’s accomplishments on wildfire prevention. But Assembly member Richard Bloom (D–Santa Monica), who chairs the budget subcommittee that scheduled the hearing, pushed it back as Cal Fire battled another devastating fire season.

The hearing shed some light onto how the state plans to spend the $1.5 billion allocated this year for forest management and wildfire prevention. State officials also gave updates on California’s progress toward its ambitious targets — after years of prioritizing fire suppression over fuels management. But some lawmaker questions were met with half-answers or blank responses, indicating the infrastructure to complete projects and track progress remains stuck in an awkward, bureaucratic adolescence.

“Dollars alone will not prevent wildfires,” Bloom said at the hearing’s outset. “We must ensure that these fuel reduction and community protection projects are done in a timely and equitable manner.”

California wildfires burned more than 3 million acres this year and destroyed more than 3,600 homes and structures. Last year’s record-setting fire season burned over 4 million acres.

During that time, there’s been a push to present more information to the public about where and when fuels management is happening.

The state has been developing a mapping system that shows ongoing fire prevention projects, such as forest thinning and prescribed burning. But Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter testified that it’s “not completely fleshed out” and will take at least another year to work out technical kinks.

Porter will retire from his post on Friday after nearly three years and spending over two decades in the department.

Assembly member Vince Fong (R–Bakersfield) asked Porter if it’s possible for lawmakers and the public to get real-time updates on when fire prevention projects are approved and completed. Fong argued it’s pertinent for state budget decisions and the public’s understanding of community fire risks.

But Porter said real-time updates weren’t possible right now. The state’s system is updated on a monthly basis, he said, and sometimes data reporting can be delayed.

“It’s frustrating that we still can’t get important data,” Fong told CapRadio after the hearing.

Lawmakers also learned that a program Newsom touted has only made nominal progress toward streamlining environmental review for prevention projects. The governor launched the California Vegetation Management Program in 2019, and his office called it “a critical tool to responsibly scale up vegetation treatment.”

But relatively few projects have taken advantage of the program.

“It hasn’t been used in a very widespread way — I think it’s maybe about 14 projects,” said Helen Kerstein, an analyst with the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, at the hearing. “We didn’t find clear data showing that it had significantly expedited projects.”

Kerstein added that the program is still new and that there’s likely a “learning curve” with using it.

Later, Assembly member James Gallagher (R–Yuba City) asked how many acres of forest management the state’s historic investment would result in, but bristled over the lack of details.

Hundreds of millions of dollars allocated in May would help fund 260 projects, according to Jessica Morse, Deputy Secretary for Forest and Wildland Resilience at the California Natural Resources Agency. But when pressed for more information about the projects’ total acreage, she said an exact estimate couldn’t be provided.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, testified that determining total acreage is not necessarily as important as choosing the right kind of project and prioritizing vulnerable communities.

Copyright 2021 CapRadio