Nat­u­ral dis­as­ters will be pri­or­i­ties for in­com­ing gover­nors

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY GE­OFF MULVIHILL

Gover­nors have a wide range of pri­or­i­ties they want to tackle in the com­ing year, from tax re­form to ed­u­ca­tion. Yet it’s a topic that re­ceives less at­ten­tion on the cam­paign trail and in their speeches that could de­ter­mine their suc­cess – nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

In the last two years alone, storms and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters killed scores of peo­ple, dam­aged or de­stroyed tens of thou­sands of homes and cost tens of bil­lions of dol­lars.

Wild­fires in the West and hur­ri­canes in the South have been es­pe­cially de­struc­tive, and sci­en­tists say cli­mate change is mak­ing this more com­mon. As the sever­ity es­ca­lates, gover­nors are find­ing they have to make dis­as­ter plan­ning a pri­or­ity or risk the con­se­quences of in­ac­tion defin­ing their terms and en­rag­ing vot­ers.

Han­dling dis­as­ters and emer­gen­cies was a prime topic last week when the Na­tional Gover­nors As­so­ci­a­tion held a three­day sem­i­nar in Colorado that most of the na­tion’s 19 gover­nors-elect at­tended.

“As Cal­i­for­nia’s wild­fires, a spate of hur­ri­canes, and un­for­tu­nate acts of mass vi­o­lence have demon­strated, such events can oc­cur at any time,” Scott Pat­ti­son, the non­par­ti­san as­so­ci­a­tion’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, said in a state­ment, “in­clud­ing a gov­er­have nor’s first day in of­fice.”

For many Demo­cratic gover­nors es­pe­cially, the main con­cern is how cli­mate change ap­pears to be wors­en­ing the ef­fects of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

In Cal­i­for­nia, half of the 10 most de­struc­tive wild­fires in state his­tory have oc­curred since 2017, and the costli­est have been in each of the past three years, ac­cord­ing to the state fire­fight­ing agency. The state has spent $500 mil­lion from its emer­gency fire­fight­ing fund just since July 1, putting this wild­fire sea­son on pace to be among the costli­est yet.

The state is deal­ing with its most de­struc­tive wild­fire ever, a North­ern Cal­i­for­nia blaze that lev­eled a town of 27,000 this month, killed at least 80 peo­ple and left thou­sands home­less. That blaze, and an­other that roared through Mal­ibu at the same time and left at least three dead, are the lat­est in a string of cat­a­strophic wild­fires that have put the state in what seems like a per­pet­ual state of emer­gency.

Out­go­ing Gov. Jerry Brown has called Cal­i­for­nia’s mega fires “the new ab­nor­mal” as cli­mate change turns the state warmer and drier.

The es­ca­lat­ing de­struc­tion prompted state law­mak­ers to pass a se­ries of wild­fire-re­lated bills this year. Among other pro­vi­sions, they pro­vide mil­lions of dol­lars to cut trees and brush, make it eas­ier for prop­erty own­ers to clear their land and re­quire the state’s util­i­ties to step up their fire-pre­ven­tion ef­forts.

Dur­ing his cam­paign, in­com­ing Gov. Gavin New­som said wild­fire plan­ning would be a pri­or­ity for his ad­min­is­tra­tion and out­lined a num­ber of steps he wants to take. Among them is a more ag­gres­sive ap­proach to clear­ing trees and brush, par­tic­u­larly the state’s mil­lions of dead trees.

“I’d rather see our Na­tional Guard work­ing on those kinds of emer­gen­cies than be­ing on the bor­der,” New­som told the non­profit news or­ga­ni­za­tion CAL­mat­ters over the sum­mer.

He also pro­posed de­ploy­ing a net­work of in­frared cam­eras to de­tect wild­fires early, im­prov­ing the emer­gency alert sys­tem and boost­ing fund­ing for fire de­part­ments through­out the state.

IN THE LAST TWO YEARS ALONE, STORMS AND NAT­U­RAL DIS­AS­TERS HAVE KILLED SCORES OF PEO­PLE, DAM­AGED OR DE­STROYED TENS OF THOU­SANDS OF HOMES AND COST TENS OF BIL­LIONS OF DOL­LARS.

A spokesman, Nathan Click, said New­som is putting to­gether a com­pre­hen­sive wild­fire strat­egy as he pre­pares to take of­fice in early Jan­uary. But the gover­nor-elect also has been clear that the long-term goal must be re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions.

Cal­i­for­nia’s fire sea­son has been es­pe­cially se­vere, yet other Western states also have ex­pe­ri­enced ever-in­ten­si­fy­ing wild­land blazes in re­cent years.

In Colorado, the two most de­struc­tive wild­fires in state his­tory erupted within the last six years, killed a to­tal of four peo­ple and de­stroyed more than 850 homes com­bined. Both are be­lieved to be caused by hu­mans, lead­ing Demo­crat Jared Po­lis, Colorado’s gover­nor-elect, to call for a pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion cam­paign to re­duce the pos­si­bil­ity of man­made wild­fires.

Flor­ida has been hit with two deadly and de­struc­tive hur­ri­canes in roughly a year’s time. Hur­ri­canes Irma last year and Michael in Oc­to­ber caused tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in dam­age.

Even with­out hur­ri­canes, many coastal com­mu­ni­ties are deal­ing with flood­ing from high tides and storm surges. In­com­ing Flor­ida Gov. Ron DeSan­tis, a Re­pub­li­can, has al­ready said he will work with lo­cal gov­ern­ments to ad­dress ris­ing sea lev­els, but has been crit­i­cized by Democrats for avoid­ing any men­tion of cli­mate change in his en­vi­ron­men­tal plan.

A mas­sive fed­eral re­port re­leased Fri­day warns that dis­as­ters such as wild­fires and hur­ri­canes are wors­en­ing in the United States be­cause of global warm­ing.

EVAN VUCCI AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump with Cal­i­for­nia Gov.-elect Gavin New­som, left, and Gov. Jerry Brown dur­ing a visit Nov. 17 to a neigh­bor­hood de­stroyed by the Camp Fire in Par­adise, Calif. New­som says wild­fire plan­ning will be a pri­or­ity for his ad­min­is­tra­tion and has out­lined steps he wants to take, in­clud­ing a more ag­gres­sive ap­proach to clear­ing trees and brush, par­tic­u­larly the state’s mil­lions of dead trees.

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