The calamitous California wildfire season is fueling the recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom as opponents accuse the Democrat of inflating his forest management progress while putting fire prevention on the back burner.
The governor has been dogged by an investigation that found he overstated by 690% the acreage of overgrown forest treated by the state in 2020, scaled back former Gov. Jerry Brown’s forest management goals and axed $150 million from the wildfire prevention budget.
Last week, CapRadio and NPR’s California newsroom followed up by revealing internal emails showing that CalFire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, removed key documents on Mr. Newsom’s forest treatment goals from its website on June 23, the same day as the original report.
The disclosures have pumped oxygen into the recall campaign. Opponents accuse Mr. Newsom of focusing on climate change instead of the tree thinning and brush clearing needed to prevent small blazes from erupting into infernos.
“What we see from Gavin Newsom year after year is rhetoric. He’ll go out and talk about climate change, but he won’t take action,” Republican recall candidate Kevin Faulconer said at the Aug. 25 recall debate.
“What did he do? He cut the funding from CalFire last year, and then he also went out and tried to take credit for treating acres of forest that never actually happened,” said the former San Diego mayor.
Democratic recall candidate Kevin Paffrath, a popular YouTube financial education host, said he has “a bone to pick with Gov. Newsom.”
“He overstated fire prevention by 690%,” he said. “He was exposed by NPR for doing that. The day he was exposed, we had Gov. Newsom’s administration try to cover up that they ever made that promise.”
Mr. Newsom is trying to beat back the Sept. 14 recall as the state struggles through another catastrophic wildfire season on pace to surpass last year’s total of 4.3 million acres burned, the most in recorded state history.
So far this year, blazes have charred 1.83 million acres, ahead of the 2020 year-to-date total of 1.74 million acres, according to CalFire.
The fast-moving Caldor Fire jumped a highway as it made a beeline Tuesday for South Lake Tahoe, prompting a mass evacuation order for the town’s 22,000 residents. The blaze grew to 191,607 acres, and containment dropped from 19% to 16%.
CalFire Chief Thom Porter said the Dixie Fire and the Caldor Fire have burned from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the other.
“Two times in our history, and they’re both happening this month,” Chief Porter said at a Monday press conference. “So we need to be really cognizant that there is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before.”
Mr. Newsom declared a state of emergency Monday for additional counties affected by the Caldor Fire. A week earlier, he obtained a major disaster declaration from President Biden to help with the response and recovery efforts.
In a visit last week to the Caldor Fire site, the governor touted the state’s work with private property owners on brush-clearing and contrasted it with the bordering federal forests.
“Right behind me, you can see U.S. Forest Service land, where we haven’t done that vegetation management, and that’s the side we’re concerned about in terms of the density and all the fuels that are on that side,” Mr. Newsom said in a video clip posted Monday on Twitter.
He boasted last year that his administration had treated 90,000 acres surrounding high-risk communities by clearing dead trees and creating fuel breaks. “California isn’t just waiting around for next fire season,” he declared.
“CAL FIRE completed the last of its 35 emergency fuels management projects in May, making 90,000 acres safer ahead of wildfire season and protecting 200 vulnerable communities,” the governor’s office said in an Oct. 16 press release.
In their investigation, however, CapRadio and NPR cited data showing that the state had treated only 11,399 acres, or 13% of the 90,000-acre claim.
“Newsom Misled the Public About Wildfire Prevention Ahead of Worst Fire Season on Record,” said the June 23 headline on CapRadio.
Mr. Newsom has not commented on the report, but Chief Porter took responsibility. He said his department gave the governor the wrong numbers and acknowledged that the claim of treated acreage was overstated.
Sacramento political columnist Dan Walters said Chief Porter, “as is the custom when political embarrassments erupt, shouldered the blame.” He added that Mr. Newsom’s wildfire record has been “erratic.”
The governor’s office referred questions about the issue to California Natural Resources Agency spokesperson Lisa Lien-Mager, who did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Asked about the removal of online documents listing the 90,000-acre figure, she told CapRadio that the department “briefly took down the 2-year-old fact sheet but reposted it a short time later with no changes.”
Republicans cried foul last week after the Democratic-controlled state Legislature postponed an oversight hearing on the Newsom administration’s wildfire prevention record until the end of the fire season, typically in the late fall, which would be after the recall vote.
Assembly Republicans accused Democrats of trying to cover up Mr. Newsom’s “gross mismanagement of our forests.”
“It is precisely at this time when so many people are suffering, when our communities are being threatened, that we need to have our government working, not refusing to work in order to help the governor win an election,” Assembly member Kevin Kiley, a Republican recall candidate, told Fox40.
A 2018 state report found that as many as 20 million acres of forest “may benefit from fuels reduction treatment to reduce the risk of wildfire.” That amounts to nearly two-thirds of California’s 33 million acres of forestland.
Republican recall candidate Larry Elder, a Los Angeles-based radio talk show host, said Mr. Newsom “gave a figure that was off by a factor of seven as to how many acres of fallen trees and dry vegetation that he’s removed.”
“And 90,000 acres is still a drop in the bucket,” Mr. Elder said on a press call. “The outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown had a plan of removing 500,000 acres of fallen trees and dry vegetation. There hasn’t even been a dent in that.”
Mr. Newsom proposed in May a record $1.2 billion for fire safety and joined Western governors this month in calling for the U.S. Forest Service to reverse its “let it burn” policy, which the agency did.
He has vowed to help rebuild communities devastated by the blazes, starting with the Dixie Fire. As of Monday, the fire burned more than 807,000 acres, making it the second-largest in state history, and razed the town of Greenville in Plumas County.
“We recognize that we’ve got to do more in active forest management, vegetation management, prepositioning assets, and the state’s doing a historic amount in all those areas,” Mr. Newsom said in an Aug. 10 press conference from the charred Greenville community.
At the same time, he said, “we need to acknowledge straight-up these are climate-induced wildfires.”
If Mr. Newsom really wanted to fight climate change, Mr. Kiley said, he would place a premium on forest management, given that the state’s emissions reductions have been wiped out by smoke from the fires.
“For example, all of the emissions we saved through policy interventions in 2017, there were nine times more emissions from the fires that followed in 2018,” Mr. Kiley said at the Aug. 19 debate. “The best thing you can possibly do for the air, for climate change, for the environment, is to take the steps that are necessary to stop these catastrophic wildfires.”
Driving the recall campaign against Mr. Newsom were his pandemic shutdowns, not his wildfire record. Still, the blazes are another hurdle as he fights the perception of heading an administration unequal to the state’s challenges.
“It’s unlikely that many voters are blaming Newsom for the wildfires directly, but this still creates an additional obstacle to his campaign,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.
“Between the wildfires and the COVID surge and rolling blackouts, Californians are dealing with a lot of adversity right now,” he said. “And grumpy voters are less likely to support incumbents.”
Polls show likely voters divided on the recall election in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 2-to-1.