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Gov. Newsom signs 22 laws to help California with wildfire preparation

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For a complete list of the new wildfire and emergency laws, visit www.oesnews.com

Nearly two years after the devastating North Bay wildfires, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed into law a hefty package of bills to help the state forecast major wildfires, oversee tree clearing around power lines and enhance disaster preparations for communities.

The 22 new laws cover significant ground and are part of a push by the governor and the Legislature to help the state prepare for and prevent climate-driven wildfires. Four of the bills were authored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat whose district was hit hard by wildfires in 2017.

Dodd has authored 14 wildfire- related bills in the past two years and seen nine signed into law. The firestorms that killed 40 North Bay residents and destroyed nearly 6,200 homes gave him an unexpected focus.

“When I woke up on Oct. 8 (2017), I never imagined that wildfires, insurance, utilities and defensible space would be such a volume of business for me,” Dodd said. Seeing more than 150 of his immediate neighbors in the Napa area lose their homes “brings everything into perspective,” he said.

Dodd thanked Newsom for “making it a priority to address this growing threat to my home district and the entire state. We must get a handle on these destructive blazes before they claim more lives and property.”

Newsom said wildfire countermeasures have been a top priority since he took office in January.

“Given the realities of climate change and extreme weather events, the work is not done, but these bills represent important steps forward on prevention, community resiliences and utility oversight,” he said in a statement.

Three other North Bay lawmakers — state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, and Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael — also had measures signed by the governor Wednesday.

Dodd singled out two new laws that he believes will make an impact.

Senate Bill 209 establishes a wildfire warning center intended to enhance the state’s ability to predict and prepare for wildfires using a statewide network of automated weather stations and fire detection cameras. The state-run center, actually a network of facilities, will be helmed by the Office of Emergency Services and Cal Fire and have access to public warning systems.

Its official name is the Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center.

“That’s going to help us on the ground be prepared, be better,” Dodd said. “We are never going to contain Mother Nature, but we sure as hell can do a better job of making sure we get to fires on a timely basis.”

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who has repeatedly testified before state lawmakers on wildfire issues, said a state-run warning center will provide technical support for local communities and help California better manage its firefighting resources.

“Technology should be leveraged, whether it’s cameras, weather stations, satellites — all of that is helpful for situational awareness. I’m excited,” Gossner said.

Christopher Godley, the county emergency management director, said it would be helpful to have “credible intelligence we can count on” in coping with wildfires.

Godley said he was heartened by the spate of wildfire legislation coming “two years past our event.”

For a complete list of the new wildfire and emergency laws, visit www.oesnews.com

Senate Bill 247 gives the California Public Utilities Commission authority to oversee power companies’ work trimming trees around their lines, a mandated task for PG&E and the state’s other two large privately owned utilities. Dodd is a critic of bankrupt PG&E, which was found responsible for sparking most of the major Northern California fires of the past two years.

The bill requires power companies to submit reports of their brush and tree trimming work to a branch of the PUC that would audit the reports and require the companies to “correct and eliminate” deficiencies.

A legislative analysis of the bill said that “specific concerns” have been raised about “deficiencies with PG&E’s vegetation removal efforts” — reported this week, at the peak of fire season, to be just over 30% complete for the year.

Dodd said it was “just insane” to allow tree clearing to go unsupervised, asserting the bill could “save lives, homes and businesses” by ensuring the work is “done in the most effective way.”

James Noonan, a PG&E representative, said the utility shares Dodd’s desire “to help keep our customers and communities safe from the increasing risk of wildfires” through vegetation management.

“We remain committed to working with policymakers, our regulators and all stakeholders on shared solutions to California’s ever-growing risk of wildfire,” Noonan said in an email.

Senate Bill 167 requires utilities to devise plans for the impact of preemptive power shutdowns on low-income people who rely on electricity to run life-support equipment. The shutdowns have become a controversial element of the utilities’ efforts to reduce fire risk during hazardous weather conditions, and the bill allows — but does not require — the companies to provide backup electrical resources or help people buy their own equipment.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane was dismayed that the utilities were not obliged to assure that low-income people will have backup power during shutdowns that could last for several days.

“They are creating a crisis in order to avoid liability, and they’re causing a lot of angst among our constituents, especially those who are the most vulnerable,” Zane said.

Zane said the county does not support the power shutdown program, contending that PG&E “hasn’t really made a good case for it.”

A fourth new law by Dodd, Senate Bill 190, will require the California fire marshal to update building standards designed to protect structures from fires and develop a model defensible space program that can be used by cities and other agencies to help make communities safer.

Sacramento lobbyist Patrick McCallum, who lost his Santa Rosa home in the 2017 Tubbs fire, has worked on behalf of wildfire victims to push for legislation protecting residents from future wildfires and the ensuing financial fallout.

“Sonoma County residents are safer today than we were two years ago due to these measures,” McCallum said. “Unfortunately it takes horrific mistakes and situations for people to react, but the Legislature did step up.”

Other bills signed into law Wednesday include:

SB 670 by Sen. McGuire requiring that all 911 service outages during emergencies are reported to the PUC in real time.

SB 560 by McGuire requiring that all public safety agencies, health care facilities and telecommunications providers are notified before their power is preemptively shut off.

AB 38 by Assemblyman Wood requiring state agencies to pursue funding to help property owners protect their structures from wildfires by trimming trees and applying fire- resistant materials.

AB 1699 by Assemblyman Levine prohibiting mobile data service providers from limiting internet access and service for first responders during an emergency.

State lawmakers will continue coping with wildfire issues when the next sessions begin in January, Dodd said, citing the pressing matter of extending insurance payments for temporary housing to thousands of survivors of the 2017 wildfires whose housing coverage expires as soon as next week — a step likely to again meet stiff resistance from insurers.

In Sonoma County, where 5,334 homes were destroyed by the fires, more than 60% of lots are now in the rebuilding process or have been rebuilt, while nearly 2,000 are not in the permit process.

Dodd noted he and McGuire secured three years of replacement housing payments in 2018, but were unable to get it applied retroactively for 2017 victims.

“There’s no reason why these (insurance) companies can’t step up and add another year (of benefits) for these victims,” he said.

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