New budget boosts wildfire spending, no money for retrofits

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he wants to see Californians "harden" their homes to protect them from deadly wildfires, but he declined Thursday to endorse a proposed $1 billion fund to help homeowners pay for retrofits and did not include any funding for home hardening when he released his latest budget proposal.

Releasing his budget revisions at the Capitol, Newsom reiterated his support for fire-resistant roofs and other features that can protect homes during mega-fires. He cited reporting by McClatchy that showed half the homes built to stricter building codes survived the November 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, compared to the 18 percent survival rate for older homes built when less stringent codes were in effect.

"Hardening homes is profoundly important," he said.

But he wouldn't commit to supporting AB38 by Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa, which would create a $1 billion fund to provide Californians in high-risk fire areas with rebates and low-cost loans to pay for retrofits.

"I look forward to working with the Legislature to see if we can identify money along the lines of what we do with earthquake retrofitting," Newsom said. "We'll try to do our best." Californians who live in earthquake zones can get up to $3,000 each to retrofit their homes for seismic safety.

A law signed last year by former Gov. Jerry Brown requires the state fire marshal to compile a list of inexpensive retrofits that Cal Fire would promote to homeowners, but the legislation doesn't offer any financial assistance.

Wood's bill has been placed on the suspense file, which means lawmakers have to weigh its spending alongside billions of other dollars in spending priorities. Wood said he will continue to push for the money and said he wasn't discouraged by Newsom's comments.

"He has talked about the importance of retrofits and home hardening for quite a while," Wood said in an interview. "What I heard is, we've got to work out a way to find the money.

"We've got a surplus again and this is an issue that is not going to go away," he added. "This is the year to do it, from my perspective."

Experts say retrofits to old homes are essential. California's building code says homes built in risky areas after 2008 must be made of fire-resistant roofs and siding. But only 6 percent of the state's housing stock has been built since then, leaving hundreds of thousands of homes vulnerable to fire . Fewer than 3 percent of the homes in the Camp Fire burn zone were built since 2008.

Newsom said his budget adds nearly $40 million to the $769 million he already proposed in January for wildfire prevention, response and recovery and other natural disasters. The spending includes:

- $75 million to assess the effects of power line de-energizing by utilities in response to wildfires, including how to protect vulnerable populations like the elderly and medically impaired when utilities shut off power in dangerous weather conditions.

- $41 million for inspections and reviews of the wildfire mitigation plans and de-energizing reports utilities are required to submit to the Public Utilities Commission.

- $20 million in one-time funding for the California Office of Emergency Services for "a state mission talking appropriation" and to fund surge capacity needs of the Statewide Reserve Corps." This funding was not immediately explained.

- $15.7 million in extra funding for CalFire.

- $10 million more to Butte County to help with damages from the deadly Camp Fire, far below the more than $30 million requested by local governments who say they are struggling to maintain basic services after the fire destroyed most of Paradise, Concow and Magalia.

- $5.9 million in ongoing funds to increase staffing and response capacity at the Office of Emergency Services.

- $2.9 million to the Department of Social Services, which is responsible for mass care and shelter responsibilities, for disaster training.

- $2.8 million to enhance the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery's ability to facilitate safe and timely debris removal.

- $2 million to create a permanent disaster response and recovery unit to tackle local housing issues through the Department of Housing and Community Development.

- $1.5 million to OES to coordinate with state agency responders because it will be responsible for distributing the $20 million.

- $1 million to the State Water Resources Control Board to increase response capabilities and address engineering and operations issues facing drinking water systems and wastewater utilities.

- Nearly $1 million each for the Emergency Medical Services Authority, Department of Public Health and Department of State Hospitals for disaster preparedness, patient planning and other shelter care issues.

Kasler and Bollag are reporters for the Sacramento Bee. KTVU reporter Frank Mallicoat contributed to this report.