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With California ablaze, Newsom blasts Trump administration for failing to fight climate change

Trinity River Conservation Camp crew members drown embers on Stringtown Road in Oroville
Trinity River Conservation Camp crew members drown embers Friday in Oroville.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Standing among charred trees in Oroville, Gov. Gavin Newsom insisted that California will do more to fight climate change and took the Trump administration to task for its policies that reduce environmental protections.

“People that want to roll back vehicle emission standards so you could spend more money at the pump and produce more greenhouse gas emissions, to create more of what you see around me — it’s beyond the pale of comprehension,” Newsom said. “We’re fighting against that and will prevail as long as more people come to this cause.”

The governor warned that the problems facing California and states along the West Coast would soon be experienced across the country.

“This is a climate damn emergency,” he said. “This is real and it’s happening.”

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Newsom made a passionate argument for increasing efforts to address climate change as the number of acres that have burned in California so far this year topped 3 million and other state and foreign governments sent resources to battle major blazes statewide.

The governor also signed legislation Friday that would make it easier for inmate firefighters to have their records expunged in order to continue fighting blazes in California upon release.

The California Legislature approved Assembly Bill 2147, introduced by Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-Grand Terrace), with the intent of allowing inmate firefighters who put their life on the line for very little compensation to have more opportunities to seek professional licenses and career paths.

Existing law requires former inmates to complete parole before they can apply to have their records expunged. The new law, which takes effect in January, states that inmates who participate in a state or county fire camp would become eligible to have their record expunged once they are released. If they can successfully complete a process to have their record expunged, they would then be able to seek professional state licenses.

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“Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism,” Reyes said in a statement. “We must get serious about providing real pathways to employment for those that show the determination and commitment to turn their lives around.”

Although advocates hailed Newsom’s signature on the bill as a major first step toward providing more career opportunities to released prisoners, some are worried that former inmate firefighters could still struggle to find work because their criminal records would be expunged but not sealed, and therefore appear on background checks.

The bill gained attention this year amid major wildfires and after Newsom approved the early release of thousands of inmates as COVID-19 spread through the state prison system. The decision left the state short of inmate firefighters who work on hand crews to dig lines around fires.

Despite boosting funding in recent years to hire more firefighters, invest in vegetation control projects, buy helicopters and airplanes, and improve forest health, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic meltdown left little money in this year’s state budget for new wildfire prevention efforts. Two last-minute attempts to free up millions in wildfire response and prevention funding fell flat in the California Legislature late last month.

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Newsom touted an agreement his administration made last month with the U.S. Forest Service, in which the federal government plans to match the state’s goal of treating 500,000 acres of forest land per year by 2025. But even under the new commitments, it could take decades to treat millions of acres of unhealthy forests in California.

When asked if the state was doing enough to prevent and fight fires, Newsom said the extreme weather in California and historic number of lightning strikes over the summer would have overwhelmed even the “most abundant and well-resourced” agencies.

Newsom said he talked on the phone with President Trump for nearly 30 minutes on Thursday about California’s fires, emergency declarations and federal wildfire aid. The governor credited Trump for being “proactive” in his efforts to provide assistance to the state and expects him to say more publicly about the fire emergency in the state.

But in criticism that Newsom indicated was aimed not only at Trump, he encouraged people to vote for leaders who recognize the importance of the fight against climate change.

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“If people are still in denial and they’re leading the charge of keeping you protected and keeping you healthy and safe ... they’re not truly, I think, positioned to be the kind of leaders that we need for your community, for the state and our nation into the future,” Newsom said. “This is that serious, and it requires a seriousness of purpose, a seriousness of understanding, a seriousness of consciousness around science and Mother Nature and the realities of the world that we’re living in.”


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