Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $536 million wildfire prevention plan Tuesday, accelerating the state’s ability to fund projects to suppress wildfire.
The state legislature unanimously passed the bill, Senate Bill 85, Monday.
The $536 million is an advance on the governor’s proposed $1 billion investment in wildfire resilience. The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will supply $125,387,000 of the $536 million package with the rest coming from the general fund.
The signing of SB 85 brings money to fire departments months ahead of schedule, which Gov. Newsom declared urgent in a year of drought and “extreme conditions.”
He noted that many reservoirs are 50% full going into the state’s peak fire season, a troubling foundation for drier months ahead.
Lake Cachuma currently sits above that mark at 61.3%. Santa Barbara County has only received 51% of the rainfall it usually has at this point in the water year.
“With a lack of rain and dry vegetation that’s already drying up right now, the possibility of having significant fires on the Central Coast is there. It’s real,” Capt. Daniel Bertucelli, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, told the News-Press.
The state struggled through a large fire season in 2020, made worse by budget uncertainty at the start of the pandemic.
“Four-plus million acres burned last year — more than 2018 and 2019 combined,” Gov. Newsom said in a press conference prior to signing SB 85. “And while it wasn’t the deadliest or most destructive fire season we’ve had, it was in terms of acres burned.
“We talk in terms of records because every year we seem to break these records. But this year, we are also breaking another record. And that’s a commitment to put real working capital to address some of the root causes to focus in on our prevention, fuel breaks and to invest a historic amount of money in preparation of this year’s fire season.”
The funds will be available to fire departments, public entities and even private businesses that apply for grants.
The money should be more accessible to areas that in years past, were ruled ineligible by prescriptive language, Gov. Newsom said.
The Santa Barbara County Fire Department has “over the years been awarded grants pretty frequently,” Capt. Bertucelli said.
Currently, the department is working to prevent fire in its Lompoc Valley Fuels Reduction Program, a nearly $2.5 million project funded by a CAL FIRE grant.
The Santa Barbara County Fire Department is one of only six county fire departments contracted by CAL FIRE, meaning county firefighters assist in a state responsibility area and receive funding for the service.
In March, Gov. Newsom authorized $80.74 million in emergency funds to employ an additional 1,399 Cal Fire firefighters.
Capt. Bertucelli was not aware if any of those funds reached counties contracted by CAL FIRE.
The state is closing grant applications for initial funding mid-May.