California targets urgent projects as wildfire season looms

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the legislation into law that authorizes more than half a billion in new spending to prepare for wildfire season on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, at the Loafer Creek State Recreation Area in Oroville, Calif. California is racing to spend more than a half-billion dollars before this year's wildfire season gets going in earnest. Newsom on Tuesday approved the early funding. (AP Photo/Adam Beam)

OROVILLE, Calif. – California is in such an urgent race with another devastating wildfire season that officials began soliciting local project ideas even before they had money to pay for them. It faces such a threat of drought that the governor said Tuesday that he has executive orders drafted and ready to sign as needed.

In normal years, the worst of the fires don't start until late summer or fall, leaving a window through about May to thin forests, clear buffer zones designed to slow the spread of fires near communities, and beef up the state's seasonal fire crews.

Not this year, officials said.

A dry winter is already blending into a tinder-dry summer that has produced twice as many wildfires as this time last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

That led legislative leaders to speed up what Newsom had proposed as a $1 billion infusion in fire mitigation projects during the fiscal year that starts in July. Newsom signed into law Tuesday a $536 million early action package, roughly $200 million more than he had sought to spend in the first half of this calendar year.

He signed it while awkwardly seated on the step of a firetruck for lack of a better prearranged location, and near a long boat ramp at one of the state's major reservoirs that this year leads to nothing but grass and rocks where there should be abundant water.

Fire conditions have worsened so much in recent years that once rare fire tornadoes have become more common as megafires create their own weather. Last year’s record-setting wildfire season scorched more than 4% of the state while killing 33 people and destroying nearly 10,500 buildings.

“These are extremes the likes of which these men and women in uniform have never experienced,” Newsom said in Butte County, near where a massive fire burned last year, and not far from where another wind-driven fire nearly leveled the Sierra foothills town of Paradise more than two years ago.