State lawmakers are set to pivot this week from their high-stakes discussions of power company liability in destructive wildfires to fire prevention — an issue weighing on millions of Californians choking on summertime smoke or the thousands who’ve been forced to flee one of the state’s 12 major wildland blazes.
The 10 legislators — six Democrats and four Republicans — on a special committee will consider issues ranging from how to clear 129 million dead and dying trees on state wildlands to curbing new development in high-risk areas where cities and towns border on woodlands primed for ignition by climate change.
The shift comes as California has seen more than 680,000 acres scorched by about 4,000 wildfires, far surpassing the acreage burned in all of last year. In 2017, 506,000 acres were blackened by more than 7,000 blazes, according to Cal Fire. The state’s five-year average is about 203,000 acres burned a year.
The figures underscore a new era of increased volatility and destructive force for wildfires, which have run rampant across Northern California thus summer, scorching more than 500 square miles across Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties and claiming over 1,000 homes and eight lives in Shasta and Trinity counties.
The latter blaze, the Carr fire that stormed into Redding, was sparked by the rim of a flat tire scraping the asphalt.
“We have more work to do,” state Sen. Bill Dodd, the Napa Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislative committee, said Friday, noting the range of potential ignition sources for wildfires.
Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat and committee member, hailed the turn to prevention and preparedness.
“We need to make California safer from fires,” said Wood, who lost dozens of constituents in the October wildfires.
“We need to find ways to help everyone protect their property better and we need to compel them to do so,” he said, acknowledging the latter step might prove unpopular.
Wood said he and Assemblyman Brian Dahle, a Republican from Lassen County whose district includes the area hit by the Carr fire, have been collaborating for four years to make the rural landscape safer through more aggressive vegetation management — an idea that has repeatedly come up in committee hearings.
“This is not a new topic for us,” Wood said. “It is past time for us to invest in ways to reduce the risk to California.”
Fire prevention, the topic of the conference committee’s fourth public hearing on Tuesday, will supplant, at least temporarily, the panel’s focus for the past three weeks on a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown to ease the liability standard for utilities whose equipment sparks wildfires. PG&E along with the state’s other large investor-owned utilities and some public utilities have called for loosening the liability standard.
Thursday’s hearing had lawyers, lobbyists, public officials, insurance and utility officials debating the issue, with lawmakers bombarding a state Public Utilities Commission official with questions over the governor’s plan.
The panel, tasked with developing comprehensive wildfire legislation by month’s end, was divided over PG&E’s pursuit of relief from liability for 2017 Northern California wildfire damage that could run as high as $15 billion.
Several legislators said that the current policy assures PG&E has a strong incentive to maintain the safety of its power grid and to seek timely settlements with fire survivors.