Newsom misled the public about wildfire prevention efforts ahead of worst fire season on record

By Scott Rodd/Capital Public Radio

Gov. Gavin Newsom dramatically overstated the amount of fire prevention work performed on “priority projects” he touted and cut Cal Fire’s mitigation budget by $150 million last year, an investigation by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom found.

On Gavin Newsom’s first full day in office, Jan. 8, 2019, the newly elected governor stood before the cameras, clad in jeans and sneakers and surrounded by emergency responders, and declared war on wildfires.

“Everybody has had enough,” the governor said, announcing he’d signed a sweeping executive order overhauling the state’s approach to wildfire prevention. Climate change was sparking fires more frequent, ferocious, and far-reaching than ever before, Newsom said, and confronting them would have to become a year-round effort. 

The state’s response, Newsom added, “fundamentally has to change.”

But two-and-a-half years later, as California approaches what could be the worst wildfire season on record, it does so with little evidence of the year-round attention Newsom promised.

An investigation from CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom found the governor has misrepresented his accomplishments and even disinvested in wildfire prevention. The investigation found Newsom overstated, by an astounding 690%, the number of acres treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns in the very forestry projects he said needed to be prioritized to protect the state’s most vulnerable communities.

Newsom has claimed that 35 “priority projects” carried out as a result of his executive order resulted in fire prevention work on 90,000 acres. But the state’s own data show the actual number is 11,399.

Overall, California’s response has faltered under Newsom. After an initial jump during his first year in office, data obtained by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom show Cal Fire’s fuel reduction output dropped by half in 2020, to levels below Gov. Jerry Brown’s final year in office. At the same time, Newsom slashed roughly $150 million from Cal Fire’s wildfire prevention budget. 

In 2020, 4.3 million acres burned, the most in California’s recorded history. That was more than double the previous record, set in 2018, when the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people.

This year, data obtained by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom show that through Memorial Day, the annual number of acres worked remained low, despite a fire season that threatens to be even more dangerous than last year. Most of the state is in “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought,” which means there is an abundance of dry vegetation ready to catch fire. A record heatwave has swept the state already this year.

The data show Cal Fire treated 64,000 acres in 2019, but only 32,000 acres in 2020 and 24,000 acres through Memorial Day this year. The federal government and private landowners also chip in, but the totals remain far below what experts say is required to effectively adapt to the dangers of climate change.

“We need to be doing a million acres a year, for a long time,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “That's the scale where you start to achieve … strategic goals, like fewer structures lost.”

Now, Newsom is trying to play catch-up. With the state enjoying an unexpected surplus, Newsom proposed $1.2 billion in “wildfire resiliency” funding in the upcoming budget. Experts say the increase in prevention spending could help the state get closer to a less-dangerous wildfire season over time. But they also expressed concern over whether the state will sustain that commitment for years to come. “We are in a deep hole,” Wara said, “and it is going to take us many years of sustained effort to get out.”

In interviews, fire survivors said they felt betrayed by government officials, who seem more concerned with making a splash than saving homes and businesses from incineration. 

“It’s a deception,” said Mitch Mackenzie, co-owner of Carol Shelton Wines in Santa Rosa, who lost his home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Last year’s wine country fires ruined one-third of the winery’s grape harvest, and the flames nearly overran his new home in Sonoma County. He says Newsom’s embellishments are a frustrating — but typical — example of how California politicians handle wildfires.

Mitch Mackenzie, and wife Carol, co-owners of Carol Shelton Wines in Santa Rosa,  lost their home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Last year’s wine country fires ruined one-third of the winery’s grape harvest, and the flames nearly overran his new home in Sonoma County. Photo courtesy of Mitch Mackenzie.

Mitch Mackenzie’s home in Santa Rosa, pictured after it was destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Last year’s wine country fires ruined one-third of the winery’s grape harvest, and the flames nearly overran his new home in Sonoma County. Photo courtesy of Mitch Mackenzie.

“With all the fire danger that we have experienced year, after year, after year ... you would think it would be a higher priority to make sure that all of this area is treated as much as possible,” Mackenzie said. Politicians, he added, “always want to look good about fixing the problem, but then they never really do it.”

In Newsom’s case, the data shows he’s done just 13% of the job he’s touted on his highest priority projects. 

The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the course of two weeks, including a 500 word email that laid out the investigation’s findings. 

The head of Cal Fire, Chief Thom Porter, did grant an interview. He acknowledged the figures cited by Newsom were incorrect and took responsibility for the governor’s misstatements.

Porter, who stood behind Newsom at a series of press conferences where the governor boasted of his accomplishments, said Cal Fire had neither “done our job in educating the public, nor the governor’s office” about how to talk about its wildfire prevention efforts. 

Porter also confirmed the agency had fallen short of its fuel reduction goals in 2020. “It’s not something that I’m comfortable with,” he said. “It is something that I’m working to reconcile and to correct for the future.”

The 90,000 Acres That Weren’t

Many of Newsom’s misrepresentations revolve around 35 “priority projects,” which Cal Fire launched in February 2019 as a result of Newsom’s executive order.

The projects selected, Cal Fire said, would protect 200 communities that were especially vulnerable to wildfire. The projects ran the length of the state — from a fuel break in the shrublands around the community of Crest, east of El Cajon in San Diego County, to cutting back foliage along major routes in and out of the town of Lake Shastina, in Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border.

As required by Newsom’s executive order, the agency said it paid particular attention to equity — focusing on areas with high “poverty levels, residents with disabilities, language barriers, residents over 65 or under five years of age, and households without a car.”

Officially, the projects totaled about 90,000 acres. That’s well short of the amount of forestland experts say needs treatment in California, but it would have substantially increased Cal Fire’s prevention output compared to past years.

In early 2020, Newsom declared mission accomplished. 

“The projects collectively have treated 90,000 acres,” states a January 2020 press release from the governor’s office. “Work included removal of hazardous dead trees, vegetation clearing, creation of fuel breaks and community defensible spaces, and creation of ingress and egress corridors.”

But the data analyzed by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom show that Cal Fire treated a small fraction of that amount, 11,399 acres, or about 13% of the amount cited by Newsom. 

In Mendocino County, for example, CalFire’s public reports said its Ukiah Fuels Reduction project, which included fuel breaks and forest thinning in the hills west of Highway 101, covered a sprawling 26,541 acres. But the agency’s data obtained by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom showed the agency did work on just 734 of them.

Responding to our inquiries, the agency provided a map. It included a large area shaded in green, covering much of the area west of Highway 101 and described as the “original project area proposed,” and a much smaller area in red, where the work was actually done. 

Cal Fire provided a similar map for the Willits Fuel Reduction project, where the agency’s public reports showed a project area of 11,965 acres. The data obtained by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom, on the other hand, showed just 262 acres of fuel breaks and no prescribed burns.

“The 90k acre figure was the overall project area, but not necessarily the area treated,” Cal Fire public information officer Daniel Berlant wrote when pressed, acknowledging the priority projects did not produce mitigation work across 90,000 acres.

But that doesn’t square with Newsom’s portrayal to the public, nor does it match how Cal Fire described the projects. A fact sheet from 2019 claimed “the priority fuel reduction projects would treat approximately 90,000 acres.”

Forestry experts said the discrepancies in vegetation management data undermines the state’s ability to measure progress toward its ambitious fuel reduction targets.

“We have to be truthful,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. When treatment numbers are garbled or exaggerated, he added, “Then you wonder about public confidence [and if] funding is being used efficiently.”

The state and federal government recently set an annual goal of treating 500,000 acres each by 2025, with Cal Fire developing a list of 500 projects to continuously work on and update to reach that end.

“We need to be really clear on what we're reporting,” said John Battles, a professor of forest ecology at UC Berkeley. “Especially if there's a million acre goal, with half coming from the state.”

The Cal Fire fact sheet from 2019 claimed Newsom’s priority projects would knock out “about 20% of the [500,000 acre] goal.” 

In reality, the actual acres treated represented less than 3%.

Despite Newsom’s public pronouncements, Porter, the chief of Cal Fire, said the state was never going to be able to tackle all 90,000 acres in 2019.

“We didn't have all of the environmental clearance that we were going to need to do all of that work,” Porter said. “Nor did we have all of the agreements with landowners completely in place.”

Total Acres Treated Plummets 

Newsom regularly points to the 35 priority projects as a badge of success. In a press release last month, he claimed the “emergency fuel reduction projects … played a critical role in containing wildfires last year.” 

Over 4 million acres burned across the state in 2020 — the most since California began keeping track. Cal Fire did not provide an estimate for how much more land would have burned without the completion of the priority projects, and a review of fire data by the San Francisco Chronicle found the fire breaks were often too small to be effective. “When they did intercept a fire, the flames often pushed right through,” the paper reported.

Still, the department says the fuel breaks and thinning did save some communities from fires. 

A fuel break near Shaver Lake in Fresno County, for example, is credited with helping save about 70 homes in a nearby subdivision. And a fuel break in Butte County called Forbestown Ridge helped slow the advance of the North Complex Fire, allowing firefighters to develop a suppression plan and create contingency lines.

But as Newsom boasted about the 35 projects, fire prevention funding and productivity dwindled.

Newsom did not identify a new set of priority projects to tackle after declaring victory on the initial 35 in January 2020, even though Cal Fire’s recommendations underscored the urgent need to make this an ongoing effort.

“California faces a massive backlog of forest management work,” the department states in a 2019 report. “Millions of acres are in need of treatment, and this work — once completed — must be repeated over the years.”

A decade ago, Cal Fire was treating a paltry 17,000 acres annually. That number has steadily climbed. Though Newsom misrepresented the number of acres treated in his “priority projects,” the overall amount of wildfire mitigation work carried out by Cal Fire spiked in his first year in office, to 64,000 acres. But in 2020, fuel reduction totals plummeted to less than 32,000 acres — a roughly 50% drop. 

Porter acknowledges the decline, but claims there’s not much Cal Fire could do. Though Newsom claimed in July 2020 that California was “up to the task” of preventing wildfires and stopping the coronavirus at the same time, Porter said the reality of the pandemic presented barriers Cal Fire could not overcome.

The record fire season also made prevention work more difficult. Fires broke out earlier than usual, leaving less time for prescribed burns and thinning. Crews responsible for fire prevention work are also tasked with fire suppression. After a spate of dry lightning that set multiple conflagration fires at once, crews shifted to an all-hands-on-deck suppression effort. Our “initial analysis is that what kept us from getting the work done was completely out of our control,” Porter said

But the significant drop in acres treated also shows the fragility of California’s existing wildfire prevention infrastructure — and the need to considerably strengthen it. 

“We've got to get more strategic,” said Stephens. “We're going to have to get much more nimble.”

Through late May of 2021, Cal Fire treated over 23,000 acres, putting it on track to exceed last year’s total, but fall short of the work done in 2019. 

Big Spending Push, After Disinvestment