California’s deadly wildfires prompt flurry of new laws
Wildfires raged throughout California once again this year as state lawmakers worked to address the searing issues of California’s new No. 1 problem: How to cope with infernos killing scores of people and costing billions of dollars in damage.
Devastating fires are “the new normal,” Gov. Jerry Brown warned this summer. Temperatures continue to rise, and the mix of drought-stricken, fuel-laden forests and nearby homes for millions of Californians is proving ever more combustible and deadly.
Over the past two years, firestorms have claimed the lives of 57 people in California, destroyed more than 9,000 homes and scorched more than 4,000 square miles from San Diego to the Oregon border. A state firefighter called the situation a “perfect storm,” and a Santa Rosa Christian pastor said it reminded him of the “end times” prophesied in the Bible.
The catastrophes triggered a search for solutions within firefighting agencies, power companies, the insurance industry and the halls of local and state government.
It culminated on Sept. 21, when Brown signed 29 measures into law addressing a host of issues from forest management, mutual aid and emergency alerts to price gouging on rental homes and safety mandates for new electric garage doors.
“There were really things that needed to happen for the benefit of all Californians,” said Michael Wara, a lawyer and Stanford University scholar focused on climate and energy policy.
“I had pretty modest expectations going into this,” Wara said, noting the issues facing lawmakers were complex and the time was short, with an Aug. 31 deadline to pass legislation and the November election looming to determine Brown’s successor.
But the professor was impressed with the Legislature’s performance. “I’d give them an A-minus,” he said.
A bipartisan response
In early July, Brown called on a bipartisan committee of lawmakers to develop proposals to strengthen disaster preparedness and respond to increasing wildfire danger. The top issue would be balancing liability for last year’s wildfire damages between electric utilities and their ratepayers, recalled state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat.
By the time the joint Senate-?Assembly committee held its first public hearing on July 25, eight major wildfires were blazing, and Thom Porter, a Cal Fire region chief with 30 years’ experience as a forester, told the lawmakers he had “never seen such volatile conditions across the state.”
Three weeks later, there were 15 fires burning.
“It became clear to us we really had a big job to do,” said Dodd, co-chairman of the 10-member committee.
Wara, who was called as a witness at the committee’s first hearing, said it was “almost a no-brainer” that California had to spend more money on “vegetation management,” the term that refers to controlled burns, thinning forests and other means of reducing the fuel available to fires. He recalled that Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott was asked at a hearing how much it would cost to make the wildlands safe. Pimlott couldn’t say.
“It’s such a big problem they never even thought they would conceivably have the resources to address it,” Wara said.
Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat who served on the committee, risked some political capital by stating he would not vote for the committee’s centerpiece bill without guaranteed annual funding for vegetation management, which he said should be $300 million a year.
That bill, SB 901, ultimately included just one new appropriation - $200 million a year for five years, or $1 billion - for vegetation management.
Wood, who also wrote five other fire-related bills, said he and Brian Dahle, the Assembly Republican leader from Lassen County, had been pushing a fire prevention plan for four years and the hazardous summer provided the right time to sell it.
“People have heard us, they’ve seen the catastrophic fires,” Wood said. “It was the perfect opportunity to make a big step toward protection in the future.”
“Jim Wood really lit a fire under the committee and the administration to get this done,” Dodd said.
“That was an accomplishment,” Wara said.
Cal Fire had dispensed $243 million in grants to local fire agencies and nonprofit organizations for controlled burns, forest thinning and other fire prevention programs over the past five years, according to Porter, the agency’s region chief.
“We’re super excited,” he said, referring to the $1 billion funding stream. “It’s an amazing investment the state is making in a proactive approach to controlling large, damaging fires.”
Wood’s other bills include AB 2551, which authorizes Cal Fire to collaborate with private landowners on prescribed burns, and AB 1919, which makes it a misdemeanor for a landlord to boost rent more than 10 percent in the wake of a disastrous wildfire.