On the heels of last year’s record wildfire season, California is facing another potentially difficult summer and fall due to the worsening drought, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday.

“None of us are naive about the challenge this state faces, or for that matter the entire Western United States,” Newsom said during a visit to the Cal Fire aviation center at McLellan Park in Sacramento. “Record drought conditions persist all through the Western United States.”

Newsom said Cal Fire, California’s main state fire fighting agency, is getting an early start on the potentially disastrous year by bringing seasonal firefighters on duty early. The state already finished all 35 high-priority forest thinning projects it identified last year, he said, and is counting on a $2 billion wildfire package that Newsom sent to the state Legislature last week as part of the state’s revised May budget to beef up the number of helicopters, engines and other equipment.

“This state is up to the task. We are resilient,” Newsom said. “We have remarkable grit and capacity. And now we will have more resources.”

He noted that scientists have said increasing temperatures from climate change are boosting fire risk by drying out vegetation earlier in the year.

“We’re already feeling the temperature shifts,” Newsom said of this spring. “We’ve already seen the red flag warnings.”

More fires have burned so far statewide this year than last year, particularly in Southern California. From Jan. 1 to May 19, there have been 2,504 wildfires in California, up from 1,534 fires over the same period last year, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. And last year, while 2,527 acres had burned by mid-May, this year, 15,390 acres have burned.

Last year ended up being a catastrophe for many communities.

In one 24-hour period in August, more than 12,000 lightning strikes from freak storms ignited huge blazes across the state. Driven by winds and hot temperatures, 4.3 million acres ultimately burned last year, with flames destroying more than 10,000 structures, killing 31 people and decimating the state’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

California could get lucky this year and avoid the lightning. But trees, shrubs, grasses and soils are drier now after the second dry winter in a row. This week, 77% of California is in extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. One year ago this week, only 3% of the state’s land was in extreme or exceptional drought.

During the fires last year, California struggled with a reduced number of inmate firefighting crews due to COVID-19 outbreaks at prisons.

Cal Fire chief Tom Porter said Monday that as part of the state’s budget surplus, Cal Fire is adding 1,399 season firefighters, many of whom are being called to duty in Southern California now. Cal Fire officials were not able to put that number into context, however, when asked how it compared to last year.

They said there are about 3,000 seasonal firefighters this year at Cal Fire. Overall, last year at the peak of fire season, about 19,000 firefighters from CalFire, city departments, federal agencies and other states battled the wildfires statewide.

Porter asserted that California is in a better position this spring than it was last spring.

“We have a lot more boots on the ground and the ability to fight fire on that ground now than we did at this time last year,” Porter said.

Cal Fire is responsible for putting out wildfires on state and private land across 31 million acres, about 30% of California’s land mass. The federal government owns about 50% of California’s land, with most of the forests overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service is running short of the most experienced and elite firefighters in its agency — crews known as hotshots — because starting pay, about $14 an hour, is less than Cal Fire and city departments pay, with fewer benefits, and longer fire seasons have been exhausting, the Los Angeles Times reported last week.

Porter said that California isn’t short.

“We have had no problem hiring all of the firefighters we need for this season,” he said.

Newsom’s updated budget adds $708 million to a $536 million wildfire package that lawmakers approved earlier this year, bringing the total wildfire package to $1.24 billion over two years. That money will pay to thin public and privately owned forests, cut fuel breaks, buy more helicopters, expand firefighting crews, boost the number of state fire inspectors who check homes for defensible space, and other wildfire programs.

Newsom also touted an additional $800 million in his budget Monday for disaster assistance. Some of that can be spent for earthquakes, floods and other disasters, however, particularly in grants to cities and counties.

He urged home owners in fire-prone areas to clear brush and trees back now.

“Let us all be mindful and let us all be prepared as we move into this fire season,” Newsom said.

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