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Video: Preparing for the Next Wildfire Season

Mary Severance May 27, 2021
photo - Wildfire at Night, Threatening Neighborhood

PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites leaders from across the political spectrum to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
 
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.

After enduring historic blazes in 2020, Californians are braced for another difficult wildfire season. For Ricardo Lara, California’s insurance commissioner, “it’s been an interesting two years.” But Lara and the panel of experts convened by PPIC last week are cautiously optimistic that the state has begun to address wildfire threat with a combination of long- and short-term strategies.

Lara noted that wildfire risk is now a statewide problem, and in many communities the cost of fire insurance is a big concern. “What you’re seeing is communities where you can no longer afford your insurance—you are paying more for insurance than for your actual mortgage.” This creates what Lara called a domino effect, as homes in high-risk areas drop in value, lowering property tax revenue for communities.

“It’s happening in roughly 10% of the state,” Lara noted, “but it’s going to take the entire state to come together to help these communities out. . . . and prevent this from happening everywhere else in California.”

Lara noted that with this year’s state budget, the governor and legislature “are proposing major investments in California’s future,” including funding to reduce the emissions that are contributing to climate change (which, he added, is a major driver of wildfire risk), adapt to extreme heat, and build disaster-resistant communities. The long-term goal is to move away from trying to suppress wildfires and focus on mitigation.

“Prescribed fire is a natural part of California’s ecology; tribes managed California with ecological fire for millennia,” said Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for forest and wildfire resilience at the California Natural Resources Agency. “What is not normal in California is these high-severity megafires that we’ve been seeing,” she continued. “Our goal . . . is to get us to the point where fire can come through and play its natural role.”

For Morse, sustained investment at both the state and federal levels is key. “The plan is clear and the strategy is laid out,” she said. “We are so excited to have a national-level partner in President Biden to start investing in and executing that plan.”

Assemblymember Kelly Seyarto, who lives in Murrieta and represents District 67, cautioned that California’s pivot from fire suppression to fire mitigation is going to take time. “We’re way behind on prevention/mitigation,” and it is going to take time to catch up. In the meantime, we need to “keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is trying to lessen the damage of the fires that are going to be coming.” Seyarto called on individual homeowners to “use the resources that are out there,” including money and expertise to help homeowners “harden” their houses and property against fire.

Senator Bill Dodd, who lives in Napa and represents District 3, has spent years dealing with wildfire threat. He is hopeful about where the state is headed. Although none of the bills passed in the past few years is a silver bullet, he said, “I really do believe we’re getting to the point right now where it’s really a good patchwork quilt. The legislature is meeting the mark, meeting the needs going forward. But we still have a lot of work to do.”

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