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California At 'Tip Of The Spear;' Newsom Signs $15B Package To Fight Climate Change

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK (CBS SF) -- With ash falling from the sky from the nearby the KNP Complex Fire raging among California's famed sequoia groves, Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday signed a $15 billion climate package, the largest such investment in state history.

For months, drought conditions have worsened across the state as more than 2 million acres of parched forests and wilderness have burned in a series of wildfires.

Some parts of the state also registered record temperatures in July and August.

"We have a responsibility in California to get things done because we are the tip of the spear of a simultaneous crisis that is the reality of climate change," Newsom said standing in front of the national park sign wrapped in aluminum foil to protect it from the flames. "The extreme weather, all the events that have led to unprecedented wildfires. More frequency, the duration, intensity of wildfires like we have never seen before in our lifetime."

He pointed particularly to the Dixie Fire that has been burning since July. The fire's burn zone stood at 963,276 acres across five counties in the eastern Sierra Thursday having destroyed 1,329 structures including hundreds of homes in the devastated communities of Greenville and Canyondam.

"Since 2020, six of the seven largest wildfires have occurred in California history," Newsom continued. "Just this year, we have experienced another devastating wildfire season. 2.35 million acres have burned so far. I say so far because I'm mindful that we are entering into what has become increasingly the peak of the fire season."

"Consider what happened in Paradise [during the deadly 2018 Camp Fire] in November a few years ago," he added. "Fire seasons have been extended where there is no season any longer."

Newsom said the KNP Complex Fire was currently destroying Sequoia groves -- "the sentinels" of California history. It had grown to 33,046 acres with minimal containment by Thursday.

"Here we are with these sentinels to our history," he said, "You got trees quote literally dating back to over 3,300 years ago. You can't rebuilt a giant sequoia. You can replant it and come back in 3,000 years to enjoy it. And that's why we are here with a deep sense of urgency."

Newsom also implored the federal government to do more. Only 3% of the wilderness areas of the Sierra range is under state control. The U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies manage 57% of that land.

"It gives you a sense of where the resource allocation should come from," Newsom said of the split. "Over half of our [fire prevention] investments have been in federal lands. We need the federal government to do more. It's not a critique, it's not a gripe. We have a president who gets it...We just need to see Congress get out of its damn way."

Most of the wildfire prevention money will pay for things like clearing brush and dead trees that act as kindling when fires start, causing them to quickly burn out of control before firefighters can contain them.

There's money available in the bill to hire inspectors to make sure newer homes built in the state's wildfire-prone areas comply with building codes requiring fire-resistant materials. And there's money for the state to intentionally set fires when conditions are right to burn away fuel that would otherwise help larger fires burn during the dry season.

The money Newsom approved is the final piece of the state's $262.5 billion operating budget. The spending Newsom approved Thursday also includes $1.2 billion for things like water recycling projects, cleaning up contaminated water sources and grants to help communities plan for climate change.

Republicans have criticized the spending because it does not include money for water storage projects, like building new reservoirs. California voters approved about $2.7 billion in 2014 for water storage projects. But so far, none of those have been built.

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