SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to hire more state firefighters and make homes safer from devastating wildfires in the budget he will send to state lawmakers on Friday.
The 555 additional full-time firefighters would be hired over five years, his office told The Associated Press, augmenting the 4,800 current permanent firefighters by about 12%.
The state also hires about 2,400 seasonal firefighters. Wildfire threats prompted power companies to impose debilitating widespread blackouts last year in an attempt to prevent their equipment from sparking catastrophic blazes.
The money to make homes more resistant to wildfires through things like replacing wooden roofs and closing gaps where sparks can enter would be focused on low-income communities with high fire risk.
It’s a fraction of the $1 billion revolving fund that Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Healdsburg had originally hoped to create to help rural homeowners. But Wood, whose Sonoma County community was threatened by a wind-whipped blaze last fall, said he's happy with a pared down test program designed to aid entire communities instead of individual homeowners.
“We’ll have to see how far the money goes," Wood said. “I hope that as we need more we’ll be able to do that.”
It’s part of what Newsom is touting as a $2 billion program to fight catastrophic wildfires and other disasters, including more than $600 million for flood control. Newsom sought $1 billion in additional spending in his first budget a year ago, though part of that went to help communities that had been hobbled by wildfires.
“California is doing more than ever before to combat wildfires,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.
Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican who represents the fire-devastated community of Paradise, praised the Democratic governor’s spending on forest thinning and helping make homes more fire-resistant.
”All these are good steps, but we need to do even more if we want to get on top of the problem quicker,” Gallagher said.
The additional personnel will provide relief for firefighters suffering mental and physical fatigue, said Tim Edwards, president of the union representing state firefighters. It also means more fire engines can be used year-round.
“The fires of the past several years have kept firefighters on the line for weeks and sometimes months at a time,” Edwards said. "He understands the hardships created and wants to provide much needed relief.”
Newsom is seeking nearly $100 million to collect better information on the state’s topography and better predict wildfires, floods, tsunamis and landslides. It also would pay for a new Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center and research on better firefighting equipment and ways to protect firefighters.
“They're going to be game changers,” said Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, which represents career firefighters statewide. "That information is going to allow the command system to be more focused in their delivery and air support. It’s going to make the fire fight that much more strategic and the tactics will have that much more impact.”