U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta talks with Lookout's Wallace Baine on Friday, April 9, 2021.
(Tulsi Kamath/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

READ & WATCH: Rep. Jimmy Panetta talks wildfires, Capitol attack, immigration and more with Lookout

‘I believe that we no longer have fire seasons,’ the congressman said in a wide-ranging ‘Fireside Zoom’ with Lookout’s Wallace Baine on Friday. ‘It’s not a season ... it’s constant.’

On the heels of a devastating fire season last year and with local fire officials on edge about what could lie ahead in 2021, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta has a sobering message for Santa Cruz County residents still reeling from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire — but also is offering glimpses of hope for possible federal action.

“I believe that we no longer have fire seasons,” Panetta, whose district includes parts of Santa Cruz County, said in a wide-ranging “Fireside Zoom” with Lookout’s Wallace Baine on Friday. “It’s not a season ... it’s constant.”

That’s why on the federal level, dealing with federal forest land, officials have to take action, not just to “constantly suppress” wildfires, but to prevent them, he said. Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, highlighted a trio of bills he has worked on — ranging from replanting trees to removing dying brush that fuels blazes — in the hopes the legislation will curb fires and mitigate after effects.

“The first one is the Replant Act, which basically goes to alleviating the backlog in the reforestation projects that we have throughout our federal forest unfortunately,” he said. “We need to replant more trees. I mean we saw what can happen in burn scar areas down on Highway One with the Rat Creek washout recently.”

The bipartisan legislation would beef up funding and helps the U.S. Forest Service prioritize and reduce the backlog of 1.3 million forestland acres in need of replanting within 10 years, according to a March news release. Among other things, it would remove “the current $30 million annual funding cap for the Reforestation Trust Fund, the primary source of funding for USFS’s replanting needs, making an average of $123 million annually available for reforestation in National Forests,” the release states.

Additionally, Panetta plans to reintroduce a bill called the Emergency Wildfire Safety Act. “That actually talks about ways how we can get in and deal with making sure that a lot of the dead and dying brush and fuel that’s in our federal forests can be removed in an environmentally safe and friendly way,” he said.

Another piece of legislation — the Save Our Forests Act, introduced by Panetta last fall — aims to invest in forest service personnel to help with enforcement and prevent human-caused fires. “The No. 1 cause of fires, wildfires, especially in federal forests, are what? Are humans,” he said. “Eighty percent of the wildfires caused are by humans in federal lands, and therefore we need more enforcement.”

The Biden administration’s recently unveiled $2 trillion infrastructure plan, if passed, could also help tackle wildfires by addressing some of its root causes, Panetta said. “I’m so excited for this infrastructure package coming up here, because you’re going to see a major cornerstone of that package is pivoting to not just greening our energy, but greening our transportation as well,” Panetta said. “So that we can reduce the effects that are a lot of the causes of these wildfires as we know.”

The state of California, for its part, announced its own wildfire-related measures recently. Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he is allocating close to $81 million in emergency funds to boost firefighting support statewide, which for fire-ravaged Santa Cruz County will lend much-needed additional support via a Watsonville-based seasonal crew from the California Conservation Corps. Newsom and legislative leaders this week also unveiled a $536-million proposal to boost efforts at firefighting and a variety of prevention measures.

Here are some other takeaways from Friday’s interview with Panetta. The event was organized by the Santa Cruz County Business Council, a nonprofit business advocacy organization that represents Santa Cruz County’s largest employers, with Kaiser Permanente health serving as primary sponsor and Lookout as media sponsor:

On the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol . . .

“My first reaction as we started to see things develop on TV was not fear, because I really didn’t think that those yahoos would find 406 Cannon, to be honest with you, on the fourth floor of the Cannon building where my office is. It was really anger. Why is this happening? How is this happening? And where the hell is the President to stop this from happening?”

On bipartisanship . . .

“There are Republicans who voted to object to (the Electoral College certification who) I never worked with before the insurrection and I’ll never work with after the insurrection. We just can’t. They’re just from different places, and they’re not willing to work together. And that’s fine, OK? But there are those members who are part of these caucuses who are willing to have those types of meaningful conversations that allow us to have empathy and trust for one another, who I worked with before, and I will work with after, because I do believe that we have to continue to get things done for people. And that is what our democracy is about.”

On the potential for a second wave of small business closures due to the pandemic fallout . . .

“Right now, we’re sort of neck and neck in this race between injections and infections. And I feel like people are like, ‘we’re right there,’ and the more vaccines and the more people take the vaccines, and the more people play their part in this — and that means the federal government and the state government and the county governments making sure that vaccines get in people’s arms and actually people go and get vaccinated, and people still wear masks — I believe we’re gonna win that race. And people are feeling like we’re gonna win that race right now. And if we can do that that means that basically the economy can open up.

“If it does come to the fact that there is a second shutdown, if people don’t get their dang vaccines, then know that the (Paycheck Protection Program) will be there, the federal government will be there as it should be there in times like this.”

On immigration in the wake of the House approving a bill to provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers . . .

“Immigration is the most politically complicated and policy-complex issue that I’ve dealt with in my limited time in Congress. So, I do know that there are members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that are willing to take the time to formulate legitimate, working pieces of legislation.

“But I also know, as we know when we turn on the TV, that there are those politicians who are using immigrants as scapegoats and using this issue as a scapegoat to get reelected unfortunately. We have to find a way to get around them. We have to find a way to get around those senators that have a hard time doing anything for immigrants unfortunately. What will that entail? Well look, it may entail a lot of work by people like, you know, Senator (Alex) Padilla, Dianne Feinstein and hopefully other senators across this country, including hopefully a couple of Republican senators to do it. If not, I could see immigration possibly being — at least some of the discussions now — are possibly being included in the reconciliation bill. And the way it’s able to be included in reconciliation is that we know, especially here on the Central Coast, how much immigrants contribute to our tax base. They pay a heck of a lot of taxes, but the undocumented immigrants don’t get any of the benefits.”

(Budget “reconciliation” is a special procedure that allows a bill to be brought up for a vote in the Senate and pass with a simple majority. Legislation passed this way has to be directly related to the federal budget.)