New California governor proposes wildfire investments, 911 fee

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday pledged fresh investments to prevent, fight and escape wildfires, including millions to help local governments improve their communication during emergencies and a fee to fund an update for the state's 911 system. 

At a fire station in the fire-prone Sierra Nevada foothills, Newsom outlined $105 million in new fire-related spending on top of $200 million approved by lawmakers last year. Clad in jeans and sneakers and surrounded by emergency responders and local leaders, Newsom said it was a symbolic and substantive choice to focus on wildfires on his first full day as governor.

"I place no greater emphasis, energy and sense of urgency on the issue of public safety," he said.

California suffered a particularly devastating fire season in 2018. A fire that leveled the town of Paradise destroyed about 14,000 homes and killed 86 people, making it California's deadliest. That fire and another in Southern California started the day after the November election. Newsom, then the lieutenant governor, was serving as acting governor while former Gov. Jerry Brown was out of town.

Newsom said the budget will include tens of millions of dollars to make up for three years worth of property tax losses in Butte and Lake Counties, which have been hit by multiple fires in recent years.

Not everyone in Paradise, a town in Butte County, received emergency alerts as wildfire overtook the town in November and the roads became bottlenecked as people tried to escape, some dying in their cars or on the roadsides. The town had tried to avoid clogged roads by evacuating people in zones, an approach that has faced criticism given the fire's fast-moving nature.

Newsom said he'll invest millions to develop better communications strategies and improve emergency alert systems with the goal of bringing "more consistency" to the system.

He'll also put $10 million toward digitizing the state's 911 system, which is still analog. But he said a full digitization will likely require a fee on consumers, something the Legislature tried and failed to pass last year.

Newsom said he won't try to enact the fee this year, but he hopes it will be in place by 2020. Raising taxes or fees requires approval from two-thirds of lawmakers, a high hurdle.

He'll outline the specifics of the $305 million investment in his budget due this week, but the bulk will go toward forest management and fuel reduction already approved by lawmakers. The rest will go toward buying new fire engines to pre-deploy in fire prone areas, improving camera technology to monitor fire threats, fixing up firefighting aircraft, investing in firefighters' mental health and boosting the California Conservation Corps, which helps with firefighting, he said.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Gallagher, who represents Paradise, said there was "a lot to like" in Newsom's proposal.

"This shows he's ready to hit the ground running, and it's an issue we certainly are both concerned about and will be working together on," he said.

Republicans are interested in modernizing the 911 system, he said, but in last year's debate, felt it could be done with existing money rather than a new fee on consumers.

Also on Tuesday, Newsom signed executive orders to speed up the state's procurement process for firefighting technology and gave state agencies 45 days to draft a report outlining policies and regulatory changes that could aid in firefighting and response.

He named Thom Porter as the new director of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire.

Although fighting fires has increasingly become the agency's top priority, Porter began with CalFire as a forester in Southern California in 1999. His duties over the years have included vegetation management, pre-fire programs and planning for wildfires. He also has been fire chief in the department's San Diego County unit. He was previously the department's chief of strategic planning.

Newsom otherwise kept Brown's emergency management leadership team in place.