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Gov. Brown signs into law California emergency alerts and wildfire liability bills

Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Friday two wildfire bills - on emergency alerts and wildfire prevention and liability - introduced by state Sens. Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd.

The bill by McGuire, D-Healdsburg, establishes a statewide protocol for emergency alerts for all 58 California counties to adopt, while the bill by Dodd, D-Napa, is a comprehensive wildfire prevention, liability and safety package hammered out by a conference committee in the last week of the legislative session.

“Bottom line, this legislation will save lives,” McGuire said in a press release about his legislation. “The size and scope of wildland fires in California has grown exponentially over the past decade and a universal emergency alert system can’t come soon enough.”

Sonoma County officials were severely criticized for failing to send out widespread alerts last October, when wind-whipped flames rushed into Santa Rosa and raced across Sonoma Valley overnight, catching thousands without warning.

McGuire said the night “changed the lives of North Bay residents forever, when tens of thousands of residents were unaware that a massive wildland fire was about to engulf their homes or businesses because they did not receive an emergency alert.”

The senator noted that some Shasta County residents did not receive adequate notice of the deadly Carr fire in July.

McGuire’s bill, SB 833, was introduced in partnership with Dodd and Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assembly members Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, and Marc Levine, D-San Rafael.

The alert protocols will be developed by a working group that will include emergency responders and public safety leaders from across the state, as well as local elected officials, disability advocates and representatives of communications industries, McGuire said.

Dodd’s bill, SB 901, contains a host of provisions aimed at preventing wildfires and determining the liability of power companies, including PG&E, for billions of dollars in wildfire damages.

Dodd, who co-chaired the Legislature’s special wildfire response committee, said in a press release the bill is “the most comprehensive wildfire prevention and safety package the state has passed in decades.”

It includes requirements for better forest management practices, increased fuel-reduction efforts and de-energizing power lines under extreme weather conditions, he said.

“Wildfires in California aren’t going away and we have to do everything possible to prevent them,” he said.

The bill’s most controversial provision allows PG&E to lean on ratepayers to shoulder some of the multibillion-dollar cost of last year’s wildfires, provided it opens its books for an examination by regulators, referred to as a stress test.

The California Public Utilities Commission will determine how much the company can pay without harming ratepayers or diminishing its ability to provide electricity.

For any fire costs deemed reasonable by the commission, PG&E or any other utility may apply for state-sponsored funding, including recovery bonds that would be repaid by ratepayers through charges on their bills.

Patrick McCallum, a Sacramento lobbyist who lost his Fountaingrove home in the Tubbs fire, said in the press release the bill “protects victims and ratepayers, helps prevent future fires” and ensures that PG&E and other utilities “invest in safety and are held accountable when they do damage.”

McCallum, as leader of a group called Up from the Ashes, actively lobbied for Dodd’s bill.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in the release legislators “worked diligently this year to find commonsense solutions to wildfires that have now become a regular feature of life in California.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter?@guykovner.

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