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California targets urgent projects as wildfire season looms

OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) – 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 average years, the worst 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.

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. Near a long boat ramp at one of the state’s significant reservoirs, this year leads to nothing but grass and rocks, where this year there should be abundant water.

Fire conditions have worsened so much in recent years that once rare fire tornadoes have become more common as mega-fires 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. Beth Bowersox, a dispatcher with the state’s firefighting agency, related Tuesday how she named the 2018 Camp Fire after a nearby landmark at the onset of what became California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, killing 85 people.

“I took hundreds of 911 calls, some of them from friends and neighbors, some of whom passed (died),” she recalled in an emotional account describing the “innumerable losses.”

She had to evacuate her Paradise home while her firefighter brother and one of his crew were injured by an exploding propane tank.

Amid such evolving conditions, lawmakers said they are now intent on starting to fight the causes of extreme wildfires, in addition to spending billions of dollars to fight fires once they ignite.

The new spending package will distribute about 86% of the money in the form of grants. Hence, the state solicited project proposals from local governments and other organizations even before the budget appropriation, said Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for forest resources management with the California Natural Resources Agency.

She told Senate budget committee members Monday that it streamlined standard contracting requirements to get grants out within weeks instead of the usual months. And state firefighting agencies are hiring now while starting on projects designed to protect communities.

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