California governor defends wildfire efforts, jabs at feds

DON THOMPSON
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California Wildfire Management

Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a Mcleod, a tool that helps with vegetation pruning and minimizes fire risk, while talking to a member of Cal Fire on Wagon Trail in the Sierra Foothills in Colfax, Calif. Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via AP, Pool)

COLFAX, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom defended California's wildfire prevention efforts Wednesday while criticizing the federal government for not doing enough to help protect the state as it enters the height of fire season after two deadly, disastrous years.

His jab at Republican President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized California's Democratic leaders for poor forest management, comes a day after Newsom signed a law requiring Trump and other presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns in order to appear on the state's primary ballot.

Newsom said 33 of 35 high-priority forest-thinning projects are on pace to be completed on schedule by year's end after he eased environmental laws to speed permits. They are designed to slow the spread of devastating wildfires near more than 200 communities in fire-prone areas by removing brush and smaller trees.

The most recent records provided Wednesday by the state's firefighting agency show many of the projects are getting a slow start. Just two of the 35 projects are substantially complete as California enters what CalFire Chief Thom Porter warned could be another damaging fire season that has been slowed by last winter's heavy, lingering snow at higher elevations. Three more projects are at least half done, while the report says two-thirds are less than 20% completed, though some of the status updates are more than a month old.

Officials said the bulk of the delays are in getting permits and permission from private landowners. Newsom said one project has required 719 permits despite his effort to cut through the red tape, while another has been slowed by illegal marijuana farms in the area where work is to be done.

Clearing and prescribed burning should pick up this fall, Porter said.

"That's going remarkably well," Newsom said. "It's not perfect but we are making progress."

Community leaders seemed understanding of the progress.

"If 33 of the 35 are going to be done by year's end, that's pretty speedy. We've seen it take three to five years. Our fire safe council has had a terrible time doing those projects," said Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, whose community north of Sacramento was nearly destroyed by a deadly blaze last fall. "It's really a very arduous process."

Farther north, Shasta County Supervisor Les Baugh said that once the state gets the necessary agreements from landowners, "crews should be able to move rapidly" on a project to protect the community of Shingletown.

Newsom spoke after touring a project near Colfax in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento that officials said is about 30% complete. The state's project butts up against federal land, however, and Newsom said "there's nothing happening on the other side of that line."

"We need a more robust commitment" from the federal government, he said. "We need more support."

But while the Democratic governor and Trump differ on policies like the environment and immigration, Newsom said there has been good cooperation with federal agencies when it comes to disasters and violence like Sunday's mass shooting at Northern California's Gilroy Garlic Festival.

Newsom said he talked to Trump on Tuesday for the second time in 10 days, though he would not say what they discussed. The White House confirmed the call but did not respond to his criticism.

Newsom also said he did not regard the state's new tax return disclosure law as "a swipe" at Trump, calling it a "transparency requirement" that also will apply to gubernatorial candidates. He noted his own tax returns will show his family has several acres of property that belonged to his late father in the Colfax area that will benefit from the wildfire safety project.

The governor also announced the state will hire nearly 400 additional seasonal firefighters this year. Most of the new firefighters will be used to add a fourth crew member on CalFire engines, while two-dozen will supervise firefighting crews made up of members of the California National Guard.

As a result, "our firefighters will continue to work incredibly long shifts without being driven to a breaking point," said Tim Edwards, president of the union representing about 6,500 CalFire firefighters.