PD Editorial: Lawmakers take a good step toward fire prevention

The wildfire recovery and prevention bill passed in the last hour of this year's legislative session won't satisfy everyone.

Yet it probably is, as Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, told his colleagues before Friday's final vote, “the best we could do under the circumstances.”

There is much to like about SB 901, which was drafted by a special committee of state senators and Assembly members and approved by bipartisan majorities.

For starters, the bill authorizes a $1 billion, five-year effort to clear brush, cut dead and dying trees and step up the use of controlled burns as a defense against wildfires.

To expedite those prevention efforts, the bill streamlines the approval process for fuel management projects, especially for owners of smaller properties.

To maintain healthy forests and combat climate change, the bill is focused on projects involving small and mid-size trees, while specifically preserving oaks with a diameter of more than 26 inches and other large trees that provide important wildlife habitat while removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

Other provisions require the state Forestry and Fire Protection Board to update regulations for fire breaks near communities and to preserve undeveloped ridgelines.

SB 901 also addresses utilities and fire damage caused by their equipment. This, of course, is the source of most of the controversy.

Under the bill, PG&E could borrow money using state-authorized low-interest bonds to help pay for damage caused by its equipment during the October wildfires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed nearly 6,400 homes in Sonoma County and elsewhere in Northern California. And ratepayers could be on the hook for some of those costs.

For every $1 billion borrowed, ratepayers could expect to pay about $5 a year.

Before that happens, however, PG&E must open its books for a “stress test” by the state Public Utilities Commission. And the utility would have to shoulder all damages up to the point that the PUC determines those costs would harm ratepayers or diminish PG&E's ability to deliver electricity.

This mechanism was opposed by oil companies, large manufacturers and some consumer groups.

But it attracted support from environmental groups, chambers of commerce, organized labor, local governments and, notably, Up from the Ashes, an organization representing Sonoma County fire victims. Why? They understand that a bankrupt utility can't pay off damages, effectively mitigate fire hazards or invest in climate-friendly renewable energy projects.

Moreover, the bill includes other benefits for ratepayers, including a new requirement that shareholders cover the full cost of all executive salaries and bonuses at PG&E and other investor-owned utilities.

Utilities also would required for the first time to develop wildfire mitigation plans and submit them for independent review. Their compliance would be a factor in how damage costs for future wildfires are apportioned, creating another incentive for fire prevention.

SB 901 passed 11 months after the most destructive wildfire in California history and one day after firefighters finally contained the largest wildfire in state history. The bill, as state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, a co-author, acknowledged, probably won't be the final word on the subject in a state where wildfires are becoming more frequent and more destructive.

But it's a good start, and Gov. Jerry Brown should sign it.

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