Wildfire conditions we face in California are clearly unprecedented in the state’s history. In the last two years, alone, over seven million acres burned across the state in large, catastrophic fires that have destroyed towns and generated harmful smoke as far east as New York. Our wildfire crisis is well known.
Many Californians though may not know that the scale and speed of work to combat this crisis is also unprecedented. Over the last three years, the Governor and Legislature have significantly increased wildfire funding—both to strengthen CAL FIRE’s ability to respond to these wildfires and to take upfront, proactive actions to protect communities before wildfires ever start. This past summer, our state leaders allocated a record $1.5 billion to take these upfront actions to build our resilience to these new wildfire conditions.
Wildfire is a natural part of California’s ecosystem. Tribal communities actively managed California’s forests and wildlands with cultural burning since time immemorial. Colonization ended active management, mass deforestation during the gold rush destroyed the large trees that were well adapted to fire, and a policy of fire suppression meant that for a hundred years, the forest grew back tightly packed with less species diversity, creating fodder for catastrophic fire. Climate change compounds this challenge. Increasing temperatures have dried out forests and created more dangerous conditions when wildfires do strike.
We are confronting this reality directly on several fronts:
- Improvements within communities such as hardening homes and improving defensible space
- Investments around communities such as completing strategic fuel breaks that slow wildfire and give firefighters space to defend these communities
- Restoration across larger landscapes to restore ecologically healthy conditions
These efforts won’t make California’s wildfires go away. Together, these investments help lower the intensity of the fire, slow its spread and protect communities.
In August 2020, Governor Newsom signed the Shared Stewardship Agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, mapping out a 20-year, science-based strategy to achieve wildfire resilience and forest health. Through months of deliberation and cross-agency coordination, our administration’s Forest and Wildfire Resilience Task Force developed an action plan to execute this Shared Stewardship Agreement. The report represents a coordinated vision across stakeholders for long-term wildfire resilience in California. The State’s historic $1.5 billion investment funds the State’s commitments to stewardship.
Our Governor and Legislature designed the budget approved this year in two phases to increase both the speed and scale of wildfire resilience actions.
- First, $536 million in early action appropriation approved in April was designed to move quickly addressing upcoming fire seasons by executing a pipeline of critical projects throughout the state and launching several new programs.
- Second, $988 million in budget year funding was approved this fall to invest in much larger projects and investments that address structural hurdles like workforce development and wood utilization infrastructure.
When it comes to the fire crisis, speed matters. Wildfires don’t wait for government process or budget cycles. Recognizing this, the Governor and the Legislature appropriated $536 million in April 2021 in “early action” funds (SB 85). This emergency appropriation was designed to get a head start on wildfire season 2022 and launch several new initiatives. With over 87% of the funds awarded and over 260 projects launched to date, we have already seen early results this fire season:
- A State Coastal Conservancy grant launched grazing on the Arroyo Hondo Preserve, which protected the preserve and its historic structures during the Alisal Fire in Santa Barbara.
- A San Diego Conservancy grant delivered defensible space chipping to over 200 San Diego low-income homes prior to this fire season.
- A Department of Fish and Wildlife investment mitigated erosion and flooding after the Caldor Fire.
To enable over 260 critical wildfire resilience projects to launch record time within several months (rather than several years), the Legislature and Administration adopted new government businesses practices, without sacrificing quality or oversight:
- Expedited Grants: CAL FIRE opened its grant solicitations months before funds were finalized by the Legislature, enabling them to award Forest Health and Fire Prevention grants in summer 2021 rather than next spring. Conservancies shortened grant solicitation periods down to two weeks and held emergency board meetings, approving grants months faster.
- Slashing Procurement Timelines: Legislative contracting relief reduced procurement timelines down to several months from 12-24 months previously. This enabled State Parks to purchase chippers and engines for fuel reduction and prescribed fire programs. The Department of Fish and Wildlife launched over 50 projects in a matter of months due to this relief.
- Cutting Green Tape: Early action projects utilized “shovel ready” projects that already had their environmental reviews completed. Future projects can use the CAL VTP, a 20million-acre environmental review, which reduced the CEQA timeline from years to months. The CAL VTP now integrates three permits (CEQA, CDFW, and Water Boards) into one expedited application and review — a fully synchronized process, that improves efficiency without sacrificing environmental quality.
Budget year investments of $988 million were designed for scale. In addition to more investments across the three fronts of wildfire resilience, these funds launch new initiatives, foundational to a long- lasting impact. These include investments that expand the workforce and businesses available to do wildfire resilience projects. Business investments include launching the new climate catalyst fund, which establishes low-interest loans for businesses that can use, rather than burn, woody material coming off of fuel reduction projects.
These investments also advance equity, science and social justice. For example, a $20 million investment in a new grant program for Tribesenables them to tell the State where they need investments. A $25 million investment in remote sensing is already paying off with the USGS matching our investments in State LiDAR.
The wildfire resilience budget includes over 40 programs across 21 departments. While there is much work to do, our interagency team is intensely focused on translating this funding into completed projects to help meet the challenge and response to unprecedented conditions with improved and sustained resilience.