Politics

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declares state of emergency due to increased wildfire risk

Key Points
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Friday as result of "a vast tree die-off throughout the state" and deteriorating forest conditions that have increased the risk of wildfires.
  • The action by the Democratic governor follows President Donald Trump's repeated criticism of California's wildfire prevention efforts.
  • The executive order will allow the state to suspend environmental review on some fuel-reduction projects, including tree thinning in forests and other high-risk fire areas.
Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses emergency preparedness during a visit to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection CalFire Colfax Station Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Colfax, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli | AP

LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Friday as result of "a vast tree die-off throughout the state" and deteriorating forest conditions that have increased the risk of wildfires.

The executive order allows the state to suspend environmental review on some fuel-reduction projects, including tree thinning in forests and other high-risk fire areas. It comes as the state is bracing for perhaps another tough wildfire season after devastating 2017 and 2018 blazes that killed more than 120 people.

Newsom made the announcement during a press conference Friday in Northern California's Lake County, a region hard hit by wildfires that has seen more than half of its acreage burn since 2012. The governor also launched a new initiative to promote emergency preparedness for wildfires.

"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. "California needs sustained focus and immediate action in order to better protect our communities."

According to governor's emergency declaration, there are an estimated 2.2 million homes located in so-called wildland urban interface areas that are at "high or very high fire hazard" risk.

The action by the Democratic governor follows President Donald Trump's repeated criticism of California's wildfire prevention efforts, including blaming the state in November for "gross mismanagement of the forests." The president threatened to pull federal funds from the state last October and repeated it in November as firefighters were still battling major blazes across California.

Again, the president in January renewed his attack on California's forest management practices and threatened to cut off federal aid.

The lion's share of forest land in California is controlled by the federal government.

Last year, California experienced more than 7,600 wildfires that charred more than 1.8 million acres, up from 1.3 million acres in 2017. Six of the 10 most destructive fires in the state have occurred in the past two years.

The state's most devastating blaze was the Camp Fire last November that ravaged the Northern California town of Paradise, killing 86 people and destroying more than 10,000 homes.

Newsom has criticized Trump's threats and defended the state's management of forests.

The governor announced earlier this year that the state will spend $1 billion on forestland management over the next five years, with funding coming from proceeds from California's cap-and-trade auctions. Also, Newsom has proposed the state spend more than $300 million to upgrade its planning and response to wildfires and other disasters.

Newsom's state of emergency declaration follows the release of a report by Cal Fire earlier this month that identified 35 priority fuel-reduction projects in more than 200 communities considered high fire-risk zones. Some of the projects involve tree removal or other fuel-reduction steps on privately owned lands.

"Now that the governor has given the green light and signed the proclamation, we're going to take action immediately on projects," said Mike Mohler, a spokesman for Cal Fire. "By next week, we will have boots on the ground and working on all of these projects."

As part of the state's wildfire prevention efforts, Newsom is mobilizing California National Guard troops to assist in clearing hazardous dead trees, vegetation and creating fuel breaks, according to Cal Fire. Some of the National Guard troops set to help in the wildfire prevention efforts previously were focused on assisting in the Trump administration's U.S. border request.

The governor's executive order to exempt environmental review on fuel-reduction projects raised concerns by some groups that have been critical of logging practices.

"We didn't like the fact they're talking about removing oversight and regulations," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "There is value to the oversight that comes with timber harvest plans and that comes with some of the other regulations."

For example, she said some environmental reviews on timber are meant to prevent unintended consequences such as mud flows into rivers and streams that could happen as a result of major storms.