Gavin Newsom plays with fire

I’ve been following the campaign to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom, although not closely. My impression from reports and polls is that Newsom is likely to survive, but that his survival is not assured.

James Freeman of the Wall Street Journal finds Newsom vulnerable on a number of fronts — crime, the coronavirus, homelessness, and wildfires, for example. He notes that California voters give him low marks for his response to the drought. According to one poll, 27 percent of the electorate rate Newsom’s response as only “fair” and 35 percent consider it poor. His polling on wildfires is similar.

Newsom would be even less respected when it comes to wildfires if the public knew that he is quietly pushing officials to ease regulations so as to promote residential and commercial development in dangerous fire-prone areas. Specifically, the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BOF) is revising its fire-safe road regulations that have been in place since 1991. Among the changes Newsom supports are:

(1) Reducing the 20-foot road width standard for development on existing roads to 14 feet, making it impossible for 9-foot-wide firefighting equipment to pass 6-foot-wide passenger vehicles on 14-foot-wide roads. Most new development is on existing roads.
(2) Eliminating dead-end length limits for all existing roads, and removing most turnaround requirements. Current regulations have a one-mile length limit for existing dead-end roads and require turnarounds every quarter mile.

These changes amount to playing with fire, as a friend who has been working on this issue puts it. He points out that many of California’s rural towns are located at the end of long, narrow, dead-end roads that were never designed for hurried escapes. Some residents of Paradise, California who fled the Camp Fire in 2018 were trapped in bottlenecks and abandoned their cars, while others died in their vehicles.

The changes Newsom backs would make hurried escapes from wildfires all the more difficult. This, at a time when wildfire conflagrations have become the new normal throughout California and perilous evacuations have become commonplace.

Newsom’s fingerprints are all over the push to revise the regulations. The BOF rulemaking process is overseen by Wade Crowfoot, whom Newsom appointed director of the California Natural Resources Agency. Crowfoot and others have pressured the BOF to weaken its regulations.

Crowfoot claims that somehow a 14-foot road standard is stronger than the existing 20-foot standard. No wonder the BOF’s executive director, Matt Diaz, recently resigned, while Dr. Marc Los Huertos, the sole board member from southern California and one of two who voted against weakening the rules, has left the board.

In addition, according to my friend, eighteen firefighting professionals from federal, state, and county agencies have said that Newsom’s policies encourage housing development in high fire-prone areas and increase the risk to lives and property during wildfire evacuations. And Doug Leisz, former associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service, calls Newsom’s lowered standards “unconscionable.”

Some Democrats are none too happy to watch Newsom play with fire. Four Southern California lawmakers have urged the BOF to strengthen the regulations. They wrote, “When roads are not upgraded and additional development is permitted this increases the number of vehicles that will need to use those roads for evacuations, which increases evacuation times for all existing residents.”

Given the low marks California’s electorate already gives the governor on drought-related issues generally and wild fires specifically, Newsom would seem to be vulnerable on the matter of fire-safe road regulations. In fact, I’m told that he asked the Board of Forestry to refrain from making a decision until October, after the recall election.

California Republicans should hold Newsom’s feet to the fire, so to speak. They should make Newsom’s irresponsible stance on fire-safe roads a major issue in the attempt to remove him.

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