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Gavin Newsom Misled Public About Wildfire Prevention Work, Report Says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

California could face another catastrophic wildfire season this year, as severe drought leaves much of the state prone to burning. Governor Gavin Newsom promised to overhaul the state's approach to wildfire prevention on his first day in office back in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: We are stepping up our game. I hear you. I get it. We need to do more and do better. These last two years have been devastating.

CHANG: But an investigation from CapRadio and the California Newsroom collaboration found Newsom has overstated the success of forest management projects, and last year, the governor cut funding for fire prevention. Scott Rodd broke this story for CapRadio and joins us now from Sacramento.

Welcome.

SCOTT RODD: Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: So let's start with what you found. What did Governor Newsom promise in the first place? And what was actually accomplished?

RODD: So early on, Newsom identified some key wildfire prevention projects, and that includes things like forest thinning and prescribed burns, and they were meant to protect some of the most vulnerable communities in California. And he claimed 90,000 acres were treated, but we found that's not true. The state's own data shows that, in reality, it was less than 12,000 acres, so just a fraction of what Newsom claimed. And looking at the bigger picture, not just those specific projects, we also found that the state's fire prevention work overall dropped by half last year, which was the worst wildfire season on record for California. And during that time, Newsom also slashed about $150 million from the state's wildfire prevention budget.

CHANG: Well, how has Governor Newsom responded to your findings so far?

RODD: So the governor's office has repeatedly declined our interview requests. However, we did speak with Thom Porter, who leads Cal Fire. That's the State Department that oversees fire prevention and response. And when asked about Newsom overstating the work done on these prevention projects, he took responsibility for his department needing to improve communication with the governor's office. And then on the drop in prevention work last year, here's what he had to say.

THOM PORTER: We had an exceptional fire year, and then with COVID restrictions that we were having to keep our workforce healthy, we had to continue the lull.

RODD: So he's saying that it's hard to prevent future fires when there are current fires going on, especially in a year like last year, when you had a record number of blazes going at once.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, then given what hasn't been done for fire mitigation, I mean, what are the potential consequences for this year's fire season?

RODD: In our interview, Porter argued that a single acre of forest management can save an entire community, but the inverse is also true; an overgrown acre left untreated could lead to a community burning to the ground. And this is people's lives, homes and businesses that are at stake. And I spoke to fire survivor Mitch Mackenzie, who lives in Sonoma County wine country. He lost his home in a 2017 fire, and he says he felt misled by Newsom's grand promises.

MITCH MACKENZIE: I've lost my home. Lots of other people have lost their homes. If he's serious about stopping these fires, somebody need to take the initiative. And I thought that's what he professed that he was going to do, and I think it's kind of deceptive.

RODD: Mackenzie's wine business also suffered greatly during last year's fires. And he has a new house in the same area, and he's worried that this one could burn down, too. In fact, last year, it was threatened by those same wine country fires.

CHANG: Well, what does California do at this point? I mean, how much can the state catch up with fire prevention efforts?

RODD: So Governor Newsom is proposing big spending in this year's budget - over a billion dollars for fire response and prevention work. And our reporting has actually led to lawmakers, mostly Republicans, pushing to amend the budget to include certain fire prevention requirements that are attached to this money to make sure that it's not just money put in a pot, but that it actually goes towards prevention work. And fire experts I spoke to say this money could make a dent in the work that's needed, but they need to sustain it because they say the state needs to do close to a million acres of fire mitigation every year. And we're nowhere near that right now.

CHANG: That is reporter Scott Rodd of CapRadio in Sacramento.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

RODD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.