Gov. Newsom declares state wildfire emergency to speed fire prevention projects; 2 in Mendocino County
In the heart of a county that has been ravaged by wildfires over the past four years, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced actions to expedite dozens of tree clearing and other forest management projects, including exempting them from statewide environmental protections that have been relatively sacrosanct for decades.
Speaking at the Middletown Library, Newsom declared a statewide emergency in a proclamation that would speed up 35 Cal Fire high-priority projects — including two in the North Coast — affecting 200 communities across the state.
His action suspends state procurement and environmental statutes to complete those jobs, including the historic 1970 California Environmental Quality Act, which requires state and local agencies to measure the environmental effects of major developments and to avoid or mitigate their harm.
Newsom acknowledged the action would upset some environmental allies, but said it was necessary given the severity of wildfires that last year burned 1.9 million acres in California, including the Camp fire in Paradise that killed 85 people. He specifically targeted Lake County for the announcement since the area has suffered six major wildfires since 2015, including the Valley fire that four years ago ripped through Middletown. Sixty percent of the county’s land has burned in recent years.
“I’ve made no bones that if we can fast-track CEQA for arenas and football stadiums, we certainly should be able to do so to save peoples’ lives,” said Newsom, who added that some of these Cal Fire projects with his directive could take two months to be completed instead of two years. “It’s a controversial one. I’m not naive. Some people want to maintain our processes and they want to maintain our rules and protocols. But I am going to push back on that.”
Two of those projects are in the North Coast. One is along the mountains west and east of Ukiah, a project that is 36,541 acres in total and includes constructing 14 miles of shaded fuel breaks — the thinning of dense tree coverage and removing underlying brush — and performing about 450 acres of prescribed burns along brush fields. It was scheduled to be completed by Nov. 1.
The other surrounds most of Little Lake Valley basin near Willits. That project takes in 11,965 acres and would center on removing brush and small trees along the one road that serves the communities of Brooktrails and Pine Mountain. It was originally scheduled to be completed on Nov. 25.
Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said his agency had “thousands of projects on the books through California” but about 100 potential wildfire areas have risen to a “very important status,” with the 35 specifically targeted Friday as the highest risk. Work on some of the projects will start next week, Porter added.
The announcement was welcomed by local officials. “The state must speed up the removal of dead and dying trees and vegetation management,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “The quicker we move, the safer our communities will be.”
Still, there was concern over the action, especially other ramifications outside fire prevention. “In this case, we worry that the lack of review and oversight might result in unintended environmental and public health harms,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club of California, in an email.