Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday outlined the steps California has taken to bolster its wildfire prevention efforts this year amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Newsom said the state plans to hire nearly 900 temporary firefighters through October to ensure the state has enough fire personnel if the pandemic continues trending the wrong way in California. The state will also hire 172 full-time staff members for Cal Fire, representing an $85.6 million investment in the state’s 2021 fiscal year budget.
Newsom credited the state Legislature’s support for avoiding cutting the costs of fire prevention services during a budget year in which California faced a deficit of roughly $55 billion.
“During a difficult budget season, that was not necessarily something many people anticipated we would be able to accomplish,” Newsom said.
The state budget also included $285 billion to purchase multiple Blackhawk helicopters, $30 million for communication equipment and $5 million for cameras to monitor the spread and development of fires across California.
Wildfires in California from January to last Sunday were well above average for the state, totaling 4,112 when the state averages about 2,500 fires annually over that same span.
“I won’t be shy: the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier, the wets are getting wetter,” Newsom said. “You may call that climate change, you may call that global warming but one thing we know is our approach to dealing with wildfires has to change and adapt with a climate that is changing very, very dramatically.”
Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter framed the beginning of wildfire season in California as another reason to wear a mask and practice other health and safety guidelines the state has emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Your mask is what’s going to keep you safe from infections coming into your community as well as keep our firefighters and emergency responders from taking infection out into their population,” Porter said.
The California Department of Social Services and the California Office of Emergency Services have also updated their mass care and sheltering protocols for wildfire season to ensure that the coronavirus does not spread among residents who may be displaced due to a fire. Evacuees will receive a health screening upon entry to a shelter site and will have access to medical and mental health professionals.
Newsom also said the state has contingency plans to procure hotel rooms, college dormitories, fairgrounds, campgrounds and short-term vacation rentals to help evacuees take shelter in a non-congregated space.
“Wildfire season this year carries an extra layer of danger as the state responds to the spread of fires and the ongoing heath pandemic,” Porter said. “It is of the utmost importance that we keep our crews healthy so they can continue their work and that we adjust evacuation and shelter plans to protect communities from the spread of COVID-19.”