By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, May 24 (Reuters) - California, heading into a wildfire season expected to surpass last year's unprecedented rash of conflagrations, has already mobilized a larger firefighting force than ever before, as the governor calls for a record $2 billion fire-safety budget.
Governor Gavin Newsom highlighted his wildfire preparedness budget during an appearance on Monday with the head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), days after the Biden administration unveiled its plan to improve fire prevention in U.S. national forests.
As Southern California moves into peak fire season in the midst of a drought gripping much of the U.S. West, authorities have documented 1,000-plus more wildfires across the state so far this year than had erupted by the same point in 2020, Newsom said.
Last year marked the heaviest wildfire season on record in California in terms of total acreage burned, with more than 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) and over 10,000 homes and other structures laid to waste. At least 33 lives were lost. Over 10 million acres (4 million hectares) went up in flames across several Western states.
The devastating outbreak of fires was stoked by months of increasingly frequent and prolonged bouts of extreme heat, drought, wind and lightning storms that scientists point to as a consequence of climate change.
"None of us are naive about the challenges that this state faces, for that matter the entire Western United States," Newsom said at a CalFire hangar for airplane tankers and water-dropping helicopters in Sacramento, the state capital.
CalFire Chief Thom Porter said his agency was expanding the ranks of its seasonal crews by more than 1,400 firefighters compared with last year, and most of them are on the job now as CalFire ramps up its force earlier than normal.
"We actually have more firefighters on the ground going into peak season than we ever had before," Porter told reporters.
He said the state had managed to fill a wave of vacancies left by prison inmates who once constituted the bulk of CalFire's ground crews but were now available in fewer numbers due to state sentencing reforms.
A previous $80 million budget allocation paid for the additional hiring, the governor said.
The fiscal 2021-2022 budget proposal that Newsom submitted this month to lawmakers calls for $2 billion to reduce wildfire threats, much of it earmarked for cutting new firebreaks and thinning overgrown forests and removing dead and dying trees that become tinder for massive blazes.
The plan also calls for greater investments in emergency response preparedness and expansion of the state's fleet of firefighting planes and helicopters, already touted as the largest in the nation.
Just last Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service outlined a plan to double or quadruple the rate at which it thins and removes dead timber and undergrowth on federal lands, which account for nearly 60% of forested areas in California. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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