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Newsom promises new wildfire prevention efforts during coronavirus crisis

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Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday that California’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has not blunted efforts to prepare for what is expected to be an active wildfire season, emphasizing the state’s effort to reduce or prevent power shutoffs by utilities when fires are a major threat.

Newsom said the California Public Utilities Commission is creating a 106-person wildfire safety division to monitor the state’s investor-owned utilities to ensure they abide by requirements to modernize their electrical systems and transmission lines to reduce the risk of igniting a wildfire. The governor also noted that new wildfire prevention efforts would be accounted for in his revised state spending plan to be presented Thursday.

“I want folks to know that we have been preparing for the upcoming wildfire season, and we’re not stepping back our efforts. We’re in fact stepping them up,” Newsom said during a news conference at the Cameron Park Fire Department just outside of Sacramento. “The budget I will announce tomorrow, we’ll include enhancements for wildfire preparation and preparedness across the board, as well as suppression strategies and opportunities to be more resilient in our recovery strategies.”

This year already has been a bad wildfire year for California. Newsom said there’s been a 60% increase in fires from January to May 10 compared with the same period last year.

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Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric and the state’s two other largest utilities shut off power and left millions in the dark to prevent downed power lines from igniting fires when high winds substantially increased fire danger. Newsom said that PG&E, despite being in bankruptcy, still must make good on its assurance that it will reduce the duration of power shutoffs by 50%.

“I am not naive that these utilities are where they need to be — quite the contrary,” Newsom said. “But rest assured that we are taking these efforts very, very seriously, holding this company into account in ways they haven’t been in the past.”

Newsom’s announcement comes one day before he submits a revised state budget proposal to the Legislature, a spending plan expected to offer solutions for contending with a projected $54.3-billion deficit between now and June 2021. Most of that shortfall, according to an analysis released last week by the governor’s budget advisors, is due to rapidly declining tax collections.

As a result, lawmakers and state budget analysts have expected Newsom to focus on a limited number of spending priorities — including coronavirus response efforts, homelessness help, schools and wildfire prevention. The Legislature is required by law to send Newsom a spending plan by June 15 for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Newsom said his revised budget will include a $127-million increase for the Office of Emergency Services to provide ongoing monitoring for wildfires and other hazards. The budget also will include $50 million to help counties affected by power shutoffs, and an additional $85.7 million for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to improve surge capacity by hiring more personnel before the peak of this year’s fire season.

During Wednesday’s press conference Newsom momentarily stepped away from the microphone after a trucker, who was slowly driving by the fire station, blasted his horn. The trucker then raised his middle finger.

It’s unclear if the trucker knew Newsom was inside the station’s engine bay. Television news trucks were parked outside, however.


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