California Appears to Be Falling Short on Wildfire Prevention

A new report indicates that certain measures were publicly inflated and that the pandemic complicated everything

As the Southwest experiences record-breaking heat and California prepares for a potentially unprecedented fire season, a new report says Governor Gavin Newsom publicly inflated his administration’s support for fire preparation while simultaneously gutting the budget for prevention.

Newsom cut $150 million from Cal Fire’s prevention program between taking office and last year, according to an investigation co-published by CapRadio and NPR. The governor also said that fire prevention efforts like prescribed burns and fuel breaks had taken place on 90,000 acres when the state said that number was 11,399—a 690 percent discrepancy.

In recent years, the number of acres treated has also declined from 64,000 in 2019 to 32,000 in 2020, according to the investigation. Many of those were part of a priority-project program aimed at especially susceptible places, including sites close to towns. Some of the decline was due to the pandemic, as well as the strain on agencies of dealing with wildfires while also trying to bolster preventive treatment.

Last year more than 4 million acres burned across California, and year after year Los Angeles has repeatedly seen apocalyptic-seeming flames encroaching on the city. There is widespread consensus that the fires can’t be systematically addressed with traditional fire-fighting, and that long-term sustained prevention is the only way to keep them manageable.

The conditions that lead to wildfires, including higher temperatures and the record droughts that continue plaguing the state, have been exacerbated by climate change. Earlier this year, Newsom proposed additional funding for wildfire prevention as part of the state’s economic recovery plan, without acknowledging his previous plans’ shortfalls.

When confronted with the results of the investigation, Cal Fire’s chief, Thom Porter, said he knew that the figures were inflated and said that the goals for 2020 hadn’t been met. “It’s not something that I’m comfortable with,” Porter said.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.