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Gov. Newsom vows to add firefighters despite California budget woes, as 'ferocious' summer looms

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In this file photo, Firefighters monitor a controlled burn as they work to contain the spread of the Maria fire in Santa Paula, CA, on Nov. 1, 2019. Fire authorities are growing increasingly concerned over their ability to muster a large, healthy force of firefighters in the face of COVID-19.

SACRAMENTO — With a “ferocious and challenging” wildfire season looming, California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged to hire hundreds of new firefighters Wednesday — but acknowledged that his new budget will curtail some of his previous funding proposals to help the state respond to emergencies.

As the state falls into a multibillion-dollar budget deficit because of the coronavirus pandemic, Newsom said he’ll work with the Legislature to secure more than $200 million in new funding for Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services (OES).

“We are not going to step back despite the economic headwinds,” Newsom said at a press conference at a Cal Fire station in Cameron Park.

But a few moments later he acknowledged that the deficit, projected at $54 billion, is having an effect on the initial budget proposal he unveiled in January.

“We did pull back in certain areas to OES and Cal Fire,” he said. “We couldn’t do everything we proposed in January.” He declined to go into detail, saying the specifics will be released when he outlines his revised budget Thursday.

Fire safety has been a critical issue for Newsom, who took office two months after the Camp Fire killed 85 people and wiped out most of the town of Paradise in November 2018.

He beefed up the firefighting and fire-preparation budget last year at the same time he tangled repeatedly with PG&E Corp. over the rash of “public safety power shutoffs” the utility imposed across Northern California last fall.

His new budget includes funding for approximately 500 more employees at Cal Fire, and he said “we’re going to hold the line on that ... . There’s no substitute for people.” He added that the state is taking deliveries of previously ordered new equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, despite the funding problems.

Despite rain showers this month, a dry winter has set the stage for a tough fire season. “We’re going to have a real challenge,” UC Berkeley wildfire expert Bill Stewart said.

Although the wildfire season traditionally doesn’t begin until summer, the state has already experienced 1,135 fires, Newsom said — about 60% more than the same time last year.

And the COVID-19 pandemic creates new problems. Because of the pandemic, the U.S. Forest Service, which patrols a wide swath of California’s land mass, has curtailed the so-called prescribed burns that are designed to reduce dangerous vegetation.

The coronavirus is also causing a labor problem. The state has been releasing inmates early to quell the spread of the coronavirus in its prisons — shrinking the pool of labor used to assist Cal Fire.

On a big fire, inmates can make up as much as 43% of the firefighting crew, mainly in digging firebreaks to contain the blaze, said Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler.

The overall inmate population is down 7% compared to a year ago, according to Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data.

Mohler said that this loss of inmate labor will be at least partially offset by the increased use of personnel from the National Guard and California Conservation Corps.

COVID-19 will create other logistical headaches, such as how to deal with social distancing on the vehicles used to transport crews and on the fire lines themselves.

In recent years some fire experts have preached the idea of letting smaller, less-threatening forest fires burn to allow vegetation to thin out. But because of the virus, Cal Fire director Thom Porter said the agency will be even more aggressive than ever at containing fires quickly this year.

“Initial attack is the key component to keeping fires small and keeping firefighters healthy,” Porter said.

Mark Ghilarducci, the director of OES, said the state is talking to the Red Cross and other organizations about how to make evacuation shelters safe with a highly contagious disease present. Right after the Camp Fire, for instance, more than 200 evacuees were sickened with norovirus at shelters in Butte County.

Among other things, Ghilarducci said the state might set up partitions in shelters to separate evacuees, or rent hotel rooms when possible. The state is already using empty hotel rooms for the homeless population in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Newsom said he is continuing to press the investor-owned utilities such as PG&E, whose wires and poles caused many of California’s major fires in recent years, to ramp up their safety spending.

He also said he is proposing a $50 million fund to help counties deal with the consequences of wildfire-safety power outages like the ones that plagued much of Northern California last fall.

Among other things, the governor said he wants to make sure counties have backup generators and other equipment in place this fall because “we want to secure the election.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how critical a role electricity will play in this fall’s election; Newsom last week ordered that every Californian be allowed to vote by mail this fall.

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