The California State Legislature Burned Us

The consequences of the last California legislative session were astounding. From all the rhetoric, one would think our legislators would have implemented policy to help us adapt to wildfire and make us safe again. Unfortunately, with the exception of one bill, that was not the case.

The legislature and Governor Brown ignored where and why dozens of people died and thousands lost their homes to wildfire since October, 2017. Instead, at the urging of the timber and biomass industries, the legislature focused on forests where only 1 in 17 of the state’s most devastating wildfires have occurred. They completely ignored the main reason our wildfires have been so devastating – planning agencies have allowed the construction of flammable homes on flammable terrain. The legislature also reduced the liability of utilities for the fires they cause.

Addressing the flammability of communities themselves? Barely a word.

In case you missed them, our solutions are offered here.

All the relevant legislators and the governor received copies, colored copies, in the mail, with personal letters attached.

HOWEVER, with the help of a bunch of wonderful people, we were able to have a positive impact in preventing the temple destroyers in Sacramento from getting everything they wanted. Here’s what we helped accomplish:

1. One good bill passed (about making homes more fire safe – SB 465)
2. A problematic bill improved (about prescribed burns – SB 1260)
3. Helped to slightly modify a damaging logging bill that we opposed so that chaparral (or what the unenlightened call “brush”) wasn’t specifically targeted.

The 4 fire bills that passed and are awaiting the governor’s signature include the following:

 

The Good

1. SB 465 Retrofitting Structures for Fire Safety (Senator Jackson)

This is the bill we asked you to support in our end of August email. It would be helpful if you would urge Governor Brown to sign it. Letters can be sent electronically to:

leg.unit@gov.ca.gov

Or by mail to:

The Honorable Edmund G. Brown
Governor, State of California
State Capitol, First Floor Sacramento, CA 95814

As a reminder, this bill allows property owners to finance the installation of wildfire safety improvements for their existing homes and businesses via their property taxes using California’s PACE program. PACE currently allows this type of financing for water and energy efficiency upgrades, as well as seismic retrofits.  SB 465 would simply expand those categories to include fire hardening, allowing property owners to finance projects like those suggested by Cal Fire on their “Harden your Home” website. This bill would allow homeowners in high fire hazard areas, among others, to make their homes more resilient to wildfire by creating a financing tool to get rid of structural hazards like wood or shingle roofs and wood siding.

The best way to reduce the catastrophic loss of life and property due to wildfires is to make communities less flammable. Eureka Springs, and new, fire safe neighborhood in Escondido, CA.

 

The Not as Bad

2. SB 1260 Prescribed Burns

This bill allows Cal Fire to help private parties and others conduct prescribed burns. Interestingly, the bill repealed the portion of the Public Resources Code that allowed the state to assume a proportionate share of the costs associated with non-state agency prescribed burning projects. It also directs the development of a prescribed burn curriculum for firefighters.

We generally don’t have an issue with prescribed burns in forested ecosystems if they are conducted in a manner that do not damage natural habitats. Unfortunately, some people see trees as natural and chaparral not so much. Therefore, this bill will likely increase the chance that sensitive habitats like chaparral, especially those near and in forests, will be damaged by untimely fire.

HOWEVER, by working with other dedicated Chaparralians, we were successful in suggesting language for the bill that recognizes chaparral as distinct from forest and in need of special consideration when it comes to adding more fire to the landscape. The language was adopted and is shown below. Please see our page on the danger of prescribed burns in native shrublands.

The impact of a cool season prescribed burn in the late 1980s: weeds and the destruction of the chaparral. Pinnacles National Park.

Section 18
(b) (1) It is the intent of the Legislature that additional consideration be provided for chaparral and coastal sage scrub plant communities that are being increasingly threatened by fire frequency in excess of their natural fire return patterns due to climate change and human-caused fires.
(2) Prescribed burning, mastication, herbicide application, mechanical thinning, or other vegetative treatments of chaparral or sage scrub shall occur only if the department finds that the activity will not cause “type conversion” away from the chaparral and coastal sage scrub currently on site.
(3) This subdivision shall be in addition to the requirements in the Vegetation Treatment Program Programmatic Environmental Impact Report.

What the bill changed (Legislative Digest):
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billCompareClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB1260

 

The Bad

3. AB 2911 Excessive Clearance

Previous law permitted a local fire official to authorize the clearance of 300 feet around specified facilities (e.g. hospitals, schools, hazardous materials facilities). This new law allows a 300 foot clearance zone around ANY structure as per Cal Fire’s authorization. We worked to remove this football-field-length clearance expansion, but were unsuccessful (see photo below for what 300 feet of clearance looks like). However, the good news is that this does not replace the current 100 feet of defensible space required for homes.

What the bill changed (Legislative Digest):
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billCompareClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB2911

What 300 feet of excessive clearance looks like. The notion that if 100 feet of defensible space is good, then 200-300 feet must be better is not supported by science. Creating large areas of clearance with little or no vegetation creates a “bowling alley” for embers. Without the interference of thinned, lightly irrigated vegetation, the house becomes the perfect ember catcher.

4. SB 901 Forest Logging

Much of what is in this bill was pulled from AB 425 during the last week of the legislative session. The development of AB 425 was what we alerted you to in our August 10 email, asking you to express your opposition to your state representatives.

As finally assembled, SB 901 is the legislature’s major response to this past year’s wildfires. As mentioned above, it’s mostly all about forests. It’s also a product of political influence by the logging and biomass industries. The failure of the legislature to do its homework (why are communities actually burning) didn’t help. Senator Dodd illustrated the legislature’s myopia best when he said, “Why are we talking about anything else other than reducing the fuels in our state?” (LA Times 8/19/18).

As Chaparralians we know how misguided Senator Dodd is – by focusing exclusively on Nature, trying to control the “fuel,” we are ignoring what has caused grief to so many families – placing flammable communities in harm’s way because we think we can control Nature.

The painful part about SB 901 is that it allows bigger trees to be cut in forests (in the name of fire protection): oaks up to 26 inches diameter at stump height can be cut down, and other trees up to 32 inches diameter. For reference, here is what a 30 inch diameter “other” tree looks like.

An cut stump from a pine tree approximately 30 inches in diameter and more than 125 years old. This is the size of trees allowed to be cut in forests in the name of fire protection. Sixteen out of 17 of the most devastating wildfires in California have little or nothing to do with forests.

SB 901 also loosens rules relating the construction of “temporary” logging roads and loosens requirements on bioenergy production in forests (burning woody remains from logging and clearing habitat). Finally the bill reduces the liability of utilities for the fires their equipment starts (which was the topic that dominated much of the legislature’s conversation about wildfire during August).

The introduction of this bill provides classic examples of hyperbole and misconception.

  • It blames forests for stealing “our” water.
  • Claims high-intensity burn patches were less than 10 acres prior to European arrival (unsupported by many fire scientists).
  • Falsely states there was a 50,000 acre high intensity burn patch within the 2013 Rim Fire.
  • Assumes logging will reduce wildfires.

All this new logging and road construction is being permitted on “nonindustrial timberland” through a “small timberland owner exemption” for the presumed purpose of reducing “fuel.” Small timberland means 60 acres or less along the coast within a single watershed or 100 acres in northern or southern forest districts within a single watershed.

We were able to expunge the bill of the word “brush,” so hopefully SB 901 can’t be used to justify the elimination of chaparral.

A pretty disappointing response by those charged with protecting the public.

What the bill changed (Legislative Digest):
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billCompareClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB901

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