New Laws Help Prepare Communities for Wildfire
California has taken a number of steps over the past two years to reduce the pervasive threat of wildfires to the state’s communities and mountainous forests. Last year, Governor Brown focused on fostering more active management of headwater forests to improve their resilience to fire, drought, and pests. CalFire has begun spending the $1 billion allocated for forest health and fire prevention on projects across the state. These efforts are especially important to improve the health of headwater forests, which have become overly dense as a result of fire suppression.
This year, the legislature and Governor Newsom have shifted the focus to making communities more resilient to wildfire, including efforts to improve prevention, response, and mitigation. For example, the governor’s budget included nearly $1 billion in additional funding to bolster wildfire emergency response and mitigate threats to communities. The governor also signed several new laws to address community wildfire risks. Here are some highlights:
- Help homeowners and communities become more fire resistant: New laws will increase the number of homes, businesses, and other properties that are resistant to damage from wildfires. Assembly Bill (AB) 38 creates a new program that will direct state and federal money to modify buildings and manage vegetation around properties. Senate Bill (SB) 190 requires the State Fire Marshal to develop model “defensible space” guidelines that local governments can use to enforce rules on reducing flammable vegetation around at-risk homes.
- Improve wildfire emergency preparedness: Several bills will improve communication about impending wildfire threats and help communities prepare, including by setting up clean air centers. SB 209 creates a centralized state office for predicting and communicating wildfire weather threats to electric utilities, firefighters, and communities. SB 670 improves local emergency operations by requiring the Office of Emergency Services to share information about outages with 911 telephone services in threatened areas.
- Manage flammable vegetation: Governor Newsom’s state-of-emergency proclamation in advance of this year’s fire season temporarily streamlined environmental review for CalFire fuel reduction projects in fire-prone communities. But CalFire will need to obtain environmental permits to continue that work under non-emergency conditions. SB 632 accelerates the approval of permits for fuel reduction to mitigate wildfire risk.
- Increase oversight of electric utilities: A suite of new laws increases oversight of electric utilities. SB 70 requires utilities to justify decisions not to bury power lines, which can reduce wildfire risk. Vegetation management activities required by utilities’ annual wildfire mitigation plans will be subject to increased oversight by the California Public Utilities Commission under SB 247. And SB 167 requires those plans to also evaluate how power system shutdowns can affect vulnerable populations (such as people with medical conditions) and consider ways to mitigate these impacts. SB 560 requires utilities to provide advance warning about power shut-offs to entities that are essential to wildfire response, including public safety offices, health care facilities, and mobile telephone carriers.
Reducing wildfire risk in California’s many wildfire-prone landscapes is a multifaceted issue. Improving community safety and forest health are both key components of living with wildfire. Recent state policies have expanded the tools we can use to build resilience in our communities and forests. Going forward, much more can be done to improve our ability to live with wildfire.