Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle
Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order Wednesday suspending environmental regulations and freeing up money to clean up downed trees and debris, and prevent calamitous mudslides in the huge blackened area left by the Rim Fire.
He also announced that he has asked President Obama to declare California a major disaster area so that it can receive federal funds.
The fire, which started Aug. 17 and continues to burn, is the third-largest wildfire in California history. It has destroyed 11 homes and blackened 400 square miles of the Sierra, near Yosemite National Park. The damage has been estimated at more than $70 million.
The blaze, combined with the subsequent government shutdown, was a devastating blow to businesses and merchants in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties that rely on Yosemite tourism. Experts are afraid that another catastrophe will befall the region when winter rains and snow mix with loosened silt, ash and burned debris.
“This debris is threatening the public health and safety, and must be removed and disposed of quickly and properly to ensure that the areas can be reoccupied safely,” Brown wrote in his executive order.
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The order will allow state agencies to tap into California Disaster Assistance Act funds and begin working to shore up the burned area without first having to hack through forests of red tape.
It requires the Office of Emergency Services to begin coordinating assistance programs and issuing contracts to local, state and federal agencies and nonprofit groups to procure equipment and immediately begin removing debris and restoring timberland, streams, rivers and waterways. The order suspends all rules and regulations that might slow down or impede that work. It also allows Community Development Block Grant funds to be repurposed for disaster relief and urges utility companies to clear all trees, vegetation and debris from their property.
The fire, Brown said, has altered the structure and composition of the forest so much that the area is susceptible to colonization by alien species, both plant and insect, threatening the biological diversity of the region.
“The chance of subsequent flooding, debris flows and mudflows are extremely likely and have occurred after every major fire,” wrote the governor in a letter to Obama. “A significant percentage of the Rim Fire area burned intensely, consuming all organic duff on the soil surface along with all leaves and needles on standing live vegetation.”
Storms, which typically occur in November and December, could affect water quality in reservoirs, roads, hydroelectric powerhouses and flood camps, said the letter.
“There are homes. There is infrastructure in there. There is the Hetch Hetchy water and power system,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the governor’s executive office. “What is going to happen when there is a huge mudslide in that area? It has the potential to damage infrastructure and have long-term effects on the environment if we don’t act now.”
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff