Gavin Newsom oversold California’s fire prevention efforts. A journalist uncovered the truth
California leaders have often touted the state’s wildfire prevention efforts, which have taken on a new urgency as fire seasons continue to set grisly records. But a new investigation, published by Capital Public Radio, found that the governor, Gavin Newsom, has dramatically overblown the state’s achievements.
The report, released in June, found that Newsom repeatedly overstated how many acres of the state were treated with fuel breaks and hazardous tree removal, along with other key elements of wildfire suppression. The report also found that the state’s fire agency, Cal Fire, saw its fuel reduction efforts cut in half in 2020.
“Overall, California’s response has faltered under Newsom,” reporters with CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom wrote. According to the reporting, while Newsom claimed that 90,000 acres protecting the most vulnerable communities had been treated, the data showed only a fraction – roughly 11,400 acres – was actually completed. “At the same time, Newsom slashed roughly $150m from Cal Fire’s wildfire prevention budget,” the reporters wrote.
The Cal Fire chief, Thom Porter, who gave a statement on behalf of the administration, claims that the fuel break projects in question still protect the communities and the 90,000 acres identified as priorities. “California is doing more than ever to prioritize wildfire prevention and I am proud of the work CAL FIRE has done to protect California communities,” he said.
Porter said tracking acreage for fuel reduction projects is “complex”. Fuel breaks, which help slow a fire’s spread with areas of thinned vegetation, can be hundreds of feet wide and miles long. Porter says the projects weren’t designed to be implemented over the entire area but that they still serve to protect it.
The governor’s office also claims that the pandemic was to blame for the decline in fuels reduction, “along with an unprecedented wildfire season which pulled our already strained wildfire crews away from prevention work to firefighting work”.
But Newsom, who has not responded to the reporting and who also did not provide a comment to the Guardian for this story, has sold the public a different story. We spoke to Scott Rodd, the Capital Public Radio reporter who broke the story for more insights and takeaways on what he and his colleagues found:
What were some of the major discrepancies you found between what Newsom said was done and what actually happened on the ground?
The clearest and probably biggest discrepancy related to 35 priority projects that were identified early on by the Newsom administration. When he came into office one of the first things he did was ask Cal Fire for recommendations on how to get the problem under control. One of the main recommendations was 35 projects for fuel reduction – things like thinning and prescribed burns – that will protect 200 of the most vulnerable communities in California. Newsom said great, go for it.
In early 2020, Newsom came out and said “mission accomplished, we have completed these projects. We treated 90,000 acres.” Cal Fire said the same thing – we are treating 90,000 acres. When we dug into the data and looked at the overall numbers in terms of what the state has been doing, we found that for those projects in that time period, they had worked on less than 12,000 acres.
These projects have been a main talking point for Newsom for years. Go back the last 18 months and if there is a press conference about fires, you will likely hear about them. He really hits these projects hard in talking up the state’s work and what he casts as successes on wildfire prevention.
How did you first discover that this issue existed and decide to dig deeper?
We were initially interested in the success of the 35 projects. I had the phrase “35 priority projects” swirling in my mind after listening to many, many Newsom press conferences.
We thought, let’s take a look at the fires that have happened since, and how successful have [these 35 projects] been at preventing or mitigating the spread of these fires. When we started digging into it, just to get background details on some of this stuff, we found that the numbers presented to the public weren’t squaring with the numbers and data we were getting from Cal Fire. The yearly totals were less than 90,000. So, I said, how does the 90,000 acres fit into these totals? And, the public information officer said, ‘that’s a good question. I have no idea.’
After much back and forth, it became clear that the 90,000 was a more of a general area the state says the project was protecting, but the work that was actually completed was significantly lower. Then it became more of an accountability story on the work that was being done and what was being promised.
What kind of responses have you been getting since your investigation published?
Republicans both in the capital but also in a broader political orbit – and certainly those involved in the recall – weighed in, calling for accountability. We have seen calls for oversight hearings from senate and assembly members. We have heard from recall candidates who are folding these findings into their talking points about Newsom’s transparency, but also his track record on wildfires.
We also saw a lot of reaction from Democratic lawmakers – some who pushed back on some of our findings and our claims – but mostly what we found was that Democrats were coming forward and expressing support for Newsom and what he has done on wildfires but still saying we need to do more on fire prevention. They are using the story as a springboard to say, look, this is a reason we need to continue doing this work. A great example of that was [state] senator Bill Dodd. He had a release that came out and said, look the work that we are doing isn’t sufficient. We need to do much more.
So, it was interesting to see the bipartisan overlap between left and right, where there seemed to be agreement that – regardless of how you felt about Newsom – more work needs to be done.
How has the governor responded to your findings?
Before publishing, we sent multiple requests for interviews to the governor’s office, including a 500-word email that said, here are all of our findings, here are the numbers we have put together, and requested an interview and requested comment. We did not hear back.
In response to that same request we sent to Cal Fire, they offered us Cal Fire’s chief to speak to. It was very helpful and informative to speak with him. However, of course, a lot of this we were laying at the feet of Newsom. We really wanted to hear from the governor to understand his perspective on things, to understand where he may disagree or agree with our findings. Because, at the end of the day, Newsom has made wildfires a serious priority of his administration and his time in office.
After the story published we went back and requested again to interview the governor, specifically ahead of a conversation on NPR’s program All Things Considered. That still hasn’t happened. In fact, I have not seen any statements made publicly on our findings or our reporting.
What have experts said about your findings, and how does this add context to the broader issue of what the state needs to do to tackle worsening wildfires?
If you look at the last 10 years or so, we have definitely made progress and the numbers do reflect this in terms of wildfire prevention work – the amount of thinning and prescribed burns we have done has increased, and experts said that is a good trend.
However, we are behind where we need to be in terms of the acreage we need to treat on an annual basis. Experts I spoke to said we need to be closer to treating half-a-million acres a year. The state has a goal to reach that and they really are going to depend on private landowners to reach that goal, but it remains a fact that the state is far behind where they need to be.
The experts I spoke to also said that what needs to match that work is funding – funding on an ongoing basis. They did credit Newsom for putting more funding than past administrations towards this work but they said we need to be looking at much more spending. We are talking billions of dollars over the years, just to reach a point where we are doing mitigation work that we can continue to do year-after-year. That was an essential point they hit on too: this can’t just be a one-time investment.
One expert said, frankly, we need to be doing this work for ever.