Newsom wildfire prevention claims undercut credibility again (Opinion)

Dan Walters
Guest column

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s penchant for extravagant — and ultimately false — promises, predictions and claims of achievement makes him his own worst enemy.

Dan Walters

His tendency was exhibited even before he became governor, most notably in his ludicrous 2018 campaign pledge that he would solve California’s chronic housing shortage by constructing 3.5 million new units by 2025.

A few months later, just after being inaugurated, he made another over-the-top promise that also haunts him, again illustrating how he self-inflicts wounds on his credibility.

One of Newsom’s first acts as governor was to declare an aggressive new wildfire prevention program, saying, “Everybody has had enough” and declaring that the state’s approach “fundamentally has to change.”

However, Capital Public Radio and National Public Radio’s California Newsroom recently reported finding a deep chasm between reality and what Newsom promised and later claimed to have achieved.

Their deep dive into wildfire prevention records “found the governor has misrepresented his accomplishments and even disinvested in wildfire prevention. The investigation found Newsom overstated, by an astounding 690%, the number of acres treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns in the very forestry projects he said needed to be prioritized to protect the state’s most vulnerable communities. Newsom has claimed that 35 ‘priority projects’ carried out as a result of his executive order resulted in fire prevention work on 90,000 acres. But the state’s own data show the actual number is 11,399.”

Surfacing as the state faces another destructive fire season and Newsom faces a recall election, the revelations again portray a governor whose pronouncements tend to be as untrustworthy as they are self-serving.

That tendency was often on display during the many months in which he single-handedly managed the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newsom was eager to show leadership by announcing, with some fanfare, deals to acquire much-needed masks to battle the disease. However, as CalMatters later reported, “In one case, the state yanked its money back after bankers raised suspicions about a $456.9 million wire transfer to a company called Blue Flame, an intended down payment for 100 million N95 masks (and) a subsequent deal to buy N95 masks from a company called BYD was delayed because federal health officials did not initially certify the masks.”

Repeatedly, Newsom would claim progress on COVID-19, lift some restrictions and then reimpose them when infections spiked, causing public confusion, devastating small businesses and fueling the recall drive.

The public radio reporters who uncovered the holes in Newsom’s wildfire prevention claims made numerous efforts to obtain the governor’s explanation, but were rebuffed.

Instead, the head of the state’s firefighting agency, Thom Porter, “acknowledged the figures cited by Newsom were incorrect and took responsibility for the governor’s misstatements. Porter, who stood behind Newsom at a series of press conferences where the governor boasted of his accomplishments, said Cal Fire had neither ‘done our job in educating the public, nor the governor’s office’ about how to talk about its wildfire prevention efforts.”

It’s a time-dishonored Capitol tradition: Something embarrasses a governor and an underling publicly shoulders the blame. It happened last year when Dr. Sonia Angell, head of the Department of Public Health, resigned after officials revealed a backlog of infection records that undercut Newsom’s public claims of progress against COVID-19.

Wildfires are a matter of life and death, and the Legislature owes the public a complete assessment of what’s being done, or not done, to mitigate the peril.

Legislative leaders should order state Auditor Elaine Howle, whose independence and thoroughness are unquestioned, to lay out the facts. Otherwise, they are complicit in the deception.

Dan Walters is a journalist and author who writes for, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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