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Public Safety

Climate Change Fuels California Emphasis On Preventing Fires

Mark Garrett, a fire information officer, examines a sequoia tree during a media tour of Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif.
Noah Berger / Associated Press
Mark Garrett, a fire information officer, examines a sequoia tree during a media tour of Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday approved nearly $1 billion in new spending to prevent wildfires, signaling a policy shift in a state that historically focused more on putting out fires than stopping them before they start.

California spent $3.4 billion on wildfire protection last year, more than quadruple the level 15 years ago and a reflection of the reality that wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive from climate change. Six of the state's 10 largest wildfires have happened in the past two years.

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But state officials have spent the vast majority of that money on extinguishing fires, a job that has become harder as the fires have gotten bigger and hotter. This year, Newsom and the state Legislature agreed to dramatically increase spending on prevention.

The initial outlay was about $500 million but with a record-breaking budget surplus they were able to add nearly $1 billion more for a total of $1.5 billion.

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Newsom signed the spending bill at Sequoia National Park, where some of the world’s oldest and largest sequoias have been threatened by wildfire in recent days.

“Conditions have never been more challenging,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “Expanding our up-front proactive actions is essential to address the wildfire risks we now face.”

Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years.

Most of the wildfire prevention money will pay for things like clearing brush and dead trees that act as kindling when fires start, causing them to quickly burn out of control before firefighters can contain them.

There's money to hire inspectors to make sure newer homes built in the state's wildfire-prone areas comply with building codes requiring fire-resistant materials. And there's money for the state to intentionally set fires when conditions are right to burn away fuel that would otherwise help larger fires burn during the dry season.

The money Newsom approved is the final piece of the state's $262.5 billion operating budget. The spending Newsom approved Thursday also includes $1.2 billion for things like water recycling projects, cleaning up contaminated water sources and grants to help communities plan for climate change.

Republicans have criticized the spending because it does not include money for water storage projects, like building new reservoirs. California voters approved about $2.7 billion in 2014 for water storage projects. But so far, none of those have been built.