Gov. Newsom overstated fire prevention work in CA's 'most vulnerable' communities, report says

SAN FRANCISCO -- California Gov. Gavin Newsom has vastly overstated wildfire prevention work completed by his administration, according to a Capital Public Radio investigation released Wednesday.

State fire officials have treated less than 18 of the 140 square miles that the Democratic governor has touted, the radio station reported. The land is part of 35 priority projects Newsom designated in 2019 on the heels of the deadliest wildfire season in state history.

In 2020, California's fuel reduction efforts also dropped from the year before, and Newsom cut the fire prevention budget by $150 million, CapRadio reported.

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The governor's office declined to comment on the investigation, and state fire officials took responsibility for Newsom sharing inaccurate information. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had not "done our job in educating the public, nor the governor's office" on how to communicate about the efforts, Chief Tom Porter said.

Scott Rodd, the Capital Public Radio reporter at the forefront of the story, joined ABC7's program "Getting Answers" on Wednesday to explain his reporting.

"Our reporting found that Newsom made misleading comments about these 35 priority projects that he identified early on in his tenure as governor," Rodd told ABC7.

He explained how these projects were intended to protect some of California's most vulnerable communities from wildfires.

"Once those projects were declared complete in January 2020, Newsom said all 90,000 acres were treated," Rodd said. "We found in Cal Fire's own data that it was actually less than 12,000 acres that had been treated and that's less than 13 percent of what Newsom claimed."

Despite multiple requests for comment on the story, Rodd said he never heard back from the governor's office regarding the data.

In a statement to ABC7 News, the California Natural Resources Agency acknowledged the nuanced language between the governor's claim that 90,000 acres were treated versus simply benefiting from the wildfire prevention efforts.

"In the case of the 35 priority projects, the work benefitted a total area of 90,000 acres - even though not every single acre within that was actually treated by boots on the ground," said spokesperson Lisa Lien Mager. "In other words, the fact that 90,000 acres was affected by and benefitted from the work is a much more important metric than the number of acres actually 'treated.'"

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Republican lawmakers and those challenging Newsom in an expected recall election later this year quickly jumped on the story as evidence of mismanagement and deceptive governing.

"It's clear that Gov. Gavin Newsom has our state woefully unprepared for fire season," former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a video posted on Twitter. "It's time to have a governor that's going to take it seriously, not stand up and say one thing and do another."

State Assemblyman Vince Fong, the top Republican on the Assembly's budget committee, called for an oversight hearing into the radio station's findings.

Newsom took office in January 2019, months after the deadliest wildfire in state history. He spent his first full day in office committing to greater investment in wildfire prevention.

He proclaimed a state of emergency in March 2019 and directed Cal Fire to begin working on 35 projects covering 140 square miles (365 square kilometers) deemed at high wildfire risk. In January 2020, Newsom's office issued a press release saying 34 of the projects had been completed, with work including removing dead trees and creating fuel breaks. It specifically said 140 square miles (365 square kilometers) had been treated.

"The unprecedented scale of the crisis requires an unprecedented response. These projects are part of California's all-of-the-above and all-hands-on-deck approach to preventing and fighting wildfires," Newsom said in the statement.

But CapRadio's investigation found work was conducted on just 18 square miles (50 square kilometers). For one project in Mendocino County, Cal Fire provided maps showing work was done on 1 square mile out of more than 40 square miles initially highlighted.

The amount of land Newsom said was treated "was the overall project area but not necessarily the area treated," Cal Fire spokesperson Daniel Berlant said.

Porter, the Cal Fire chief, said the state never had the environmental clearance or landowner agreements in place to treat the full land area.

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Overall, the agency treated more land in 2019 than the year before. But that number fell again in 2020, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts said California should be treating more than 1,500 square miles (4,050 square kilometers) annually, particularly as the state gets drier and hotter.

While spending on wildfire prevention dropped in 2020, Newsom says he wants to put $1.2 billion toward wildfire resiliency efforts this year.

John Cox, a Republican candidate running against Newsom, said the governor was "playing politics instead of solving problems."

"Newsom promised transformational attention to wildfire prevention; instead, the only thing transformed has been California's landscape as a result of record fires," Cox said.

Take a look at the latest stories and videos about wildfires here in the Bay Area and across California.

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