California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks with state fire and emergency management officials behind him at the Cal Fire Aviation Management Unit near Sacramento, California, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Photo: Youtube)

Accompanied by fire officials, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday warned Californians to be vigilant as the state heads toward a potentially worse fire season than expected, following vegetation drying out in a brutal heat wave that has caused five times as many acres of land to burn across the state this year than usual.

He also urged voters to be vigilant about the upcoming presidential election and reiterated his support for President Biden to remain the Democratic nominee, saying California has “the most to lose” if Donald Trump wins in November.

“I'm focused on supporting this campaign,” Newsom said of Biden's re-election effort. “This candidate is a man of character, decency and honor. Compare that to the darkness that is Donald Trump.”

When asked by a reporter if he still stands by the promise he made last September not to run against Vice President Kamala Harris in the presidential election, Newsom said, “Of course. Yes.”

Newsom, along with Harris and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, have often been mentioned as possible replacements for Biden as the Democratic nominee after Biden's weak debate performance on June 27. However, Newsom has said he supports Biden and has been actively campaigning for him in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan over the past week.

Flanked by helicopters, planes and fire commanders from the Cal Fire Aviation Management Unit in Sacramento, Newsom said at a press conference on Wednesday that Biden had quickly provided disaster relief to California after wildfires and other disasters, while Trump had resisted doing so.

“It wasn't that easy in the past,” he said. “We had to make phone calls, we had to wait for days, there were threats. That's no longer the case today.”

Newsom recalled Trump's remarks as he toured the destruction caused by the 2018 Camp Fire. Started by a PG&E power line, the blaze burned the Butte County town of Paradise to the ground, killing 85 people and making it the worst wildfire in state history.

“You have to take care of the soils. You know the soils of the forest are very important,” Trump said at the time. “When you look at other countries where they do it differently, it's a whole different story. I was with the president of Finland and he called it a forest nation, and they spend a lot of time raking and cleaning and doing things like that, and they don't have a problem.”

Wildfire experts pointed out that many of California's wildfires have been burning in national forests, which are owned and maintained by the federal government, not the state. And while California has a predominantly dry Mediterranean climate, Finland is a Nordic country where temperatures can reach as low as -45°F in the winter.

Newsom said Cal Fire officials have met their goal of thinning or conducting controlled burns on 100,000 acres or more for four years in a row. The state had 9,700 Cal Fire personnel deployed this summer, compared to 6,700 in 2018, he added.

On issues ranging from the environment to abortion rights, the election is crucial, Newsom said.

“Everything about this election campaign is going to disproportionately impact this state,” Newsom said. “We were involved in 122 lawsuits against the Trump administration. Don't you remember that? The chaos. The fear, the anxiety.”

“He said we have to cut down the forests,” Newsom added. “Daylight and darkness. This is a profound and momentous moment. This is a moment where we are all putting everything on the line. This is serious business for this state. No state has more to lose.”

During his four years in office, Trump denied the scientific evidence for climate change and appointed coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Newsom has made climate change a central issue of his tenure as governor, signing legislation banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 and spending billions to expand solar, wind, offshore wind and other alternative energy projects.

“We have to first address the underlying cause, and that is the heat-trapping gases,” Newsom said Wednesday. “We have to address the fossil fuel issue. We have to hold polluters accountable.”

Over the past two weeks, California has experienced a record heat wave with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius in Palm Springs and over 43 degrees Celsius in much of the Central Valley, Southern California and parts of the Bay Area.

“Over and over and over and over and over again,” Newsom said. “Record temperatures. Record-breaking experiences, not just in California, but across the country and the rest of the world. With all due respect to the cavemen out there, climate change is real. If you don't believe in the science, you have to trust your own eyes.”

So far this year, 207,415 acres have been burned by wildfires in California, five times the five-year average (38,593 acres through July 10). Although more acres have burned, there have been fewer fires: 3,543 this year, compared to a five-year average of 3,659.

Cal Fire Chief Joe Tyler said two wet winters in a row had accumulated large areas of grass. Several very windy days and the heat wave caused the fires to spread quickly. There have been no fatalities, however, Tyler noted, and the number of structures burned has been relatively low so far, even as fires recently threatened cities like Oroville and Mariposa.

“We need to be extra cautious in these hot, dry, windy conditions,” Tyler said, urging people to mow lawns early in the morning when humidity is higher and to be cautious with chainsaws, grinders, tractors and other equipment that can start fires.

A leading fire researcher agreed. Until the heat wave, moisture levels in grasses and shrubs across the state were average or better, said John Abatzoglou, a professor of climate science at UC Merced. Now it's near record dry for this time of year, and summer fire danger is higher than expected.

“The heat wave has really dried out the state,” Abatzoglou said. “The fire danger has gone from almost normal weather a few weeks ago to exceptionally dry weather. The summer drying out of fuels is in full swing.”

A firefighting aircraft drops flame retardant behind a home while battling the Toll Fire near Calistoga, Calif., Tuesday, July 2, 2024. A prolonged heat wave in Northern California has prompted fire warnings and power outages. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A firefighting aircraft drops flame retardant behind a home while battling the Toll Fire near Calistoga, Calif., Tuesday, July 2, 2024. A prolonged heat wave in Northern California has prompted fire warnings and power outages. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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