California Fire and Forestry 2018 Legislative Update

New exemptions allow property owners to thin forests on private property. Important measures are in place to prevent harm while we wait to monitor impact. Pictured here: white fir (Abies concolor) and sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) Photo: Julie Evens

By Greg Suba

New fires, new rules, ongoing vigilance

Forest health and wildfires were predominant issues in this year’s legislative cycle. In July, Gov. Jerry Brown convened a special legislative conference committee to report on and propose new legislation in response to the increased size and severity of California wildfires. After several public hearings and much lobbying, the Governor’s joint Conference Committee on Wildfire Preparedness and Response issued their findings and more than 100 pages of new legislation just hours before the close of the session.

Senate Bill 901 (SB 901)

SB 901 passed both houses two hours before the final bell, and established new rules – or more precisely new exemptions to existing rules – to facilitate forest thinning for private landowners wanting to protect life and property.

During those final days and hours, the CNPS team worked with a core group of forestry NGO allies to advise legislative staff on SB 901’s proposed exemptions to the California Forest Practice Rules. We worked to ensure adequate safeguards and legislative sunsets aimed to minimize potential damage from SB 901. The legislation divides new timber harvest exemptions  into two landownership categories:

Small Timberland Owner Exemptions:
CalFIRE will grant exemption for  private parcels of 60-acres or less within a single planning watershed along coastal forests and 100-acres or less within a single planning watershed inland. SB 901 allows property owners to use the exemptions only once per any given acre within a 10-year period. The legislation caps exemptions at three per landowner. Other resource agencies are able to review and comment on the exemption applications, though only within a compressed time frame. Additional specifications include:

  • No clear-cutting.
  • A Registered Professional Forester (RPF) must oversee the work.
  • Conifers up to 32” stump diameter (measured 8” above ground) can be removed. (The previous limit for conifer removal was 26” stump diameter.)
  • Conifers can be removed only after the six largest trees are retained on the same acre. This means there must be at least six other trees of equal or greater size on an acre before a landowner can remove a big tree in the name of fire safety.
  • No oak trees greater than 26” stump diameter can be removed.
  • The amount of trees and understory vegetation left after the project must adhere to existing state standards.

Forest Fire Protection Exemptions:
The second set of exemptions pertains to private landowners with up to 300 acres within moderate, high, or very high severity fire zones.

  • Trees up to 30” stump diameter can be removed
  • Property owners may construct temporary roads but must abandon and remove roads at the end of the project.
  • Temporary road construction is limited to:
    • Road construction applies to areas of 30 percent slope or less.
    • They must maintain 200’ buffer from Class I and II, and 50’ buffer from Class III watercourses.
    • Roads must be no more than 2 miles cumulatively per owner within a planning watershed in a 5-year period.
    • Roads must be no more than 300 feet cumulatively per 40-acre projects (no connected segments).
    • No more than 600 feet cumulatively per 80-acre or more projects (no connected segments).
  • Property owners may remove trees up to 36” stump diameter standing in the way of road construction only if the RPF determines no other feasible road alignment is possible.
  • Residual post-project forest structure (amount of trees and understory vegetation left) must adhere to existing state standards.

Property owners may not combine the exemptions with each other or with already existing exemptions.

Understanding the new exemptions

SB 901 seeks to address a suite of forest issues through its many provisions. As stated in the intent language of the bill:

“This act is intended to improve forest health and reduce the risk and intensity
of wildfires, thereby protecting the state from loss of life and property damage, reducing
greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing ecosystem function, improving wildlife habitats,
increasing water supply, improving water quality, reducing the amount of money the
state must spend on wildfire response and rebuilding, and increasing carbon
sequestration in our forests.”

The new exemptions come with four to six year sunsets. Reporting requirements, time and vigilance will tell us how effective California’s most recent actions will be in preparing and responding to our changing fire landscape.


  1. It would be helpful to read not just the facts of the legislation, but what CNPS thinks about it. Understanding your position on things is instructive for your members.

    1. From Greg:
      Hello Caitlin. You’ve raised a fair point.
      California is living with a 200+ year legacy of having removed fire as a natural disturbance process on forested lands across the state. At the same time, our growing population is igniting fires at a pace and scale never before experienced in California’s history. Over time, this has produced a fire deficit across our state’s more northern, forested lands (that does seem contradictory, but it is true), and a fire excess in the south across chaparral and desert landscapes.

      While CNPS has long resisted Timber Harvest Plan exemptions, and remains rightly wary of their potential to diminish the quality of pre-project plant surveys and appropriate mitigation for impacts to plant species, we acknowledge that provisions within SB 1260 and SB 901 can lead to more fire-resilient forest conditions. The CNPS Conservation Program is already working on how best to prepare for a new Governor and administration, and how to advise them on the need to implement these forest rule changes hand in hand with plant biodiversity preservation.

      In short, Californians living in and near forests need the means to address appropriate forest thinning. We’re not talking about thinning chaparral in the south, we’re talking about appropriately thinning dense stands of conifers around life and property in forests. SB 1260 and some of SB 901 can facilitate this. I believe in the truism that no legislation is final. So we’ll monitor and engage in the implementation of 2018’s changes and continue to be the voice for native plant conservation in California. Thank you for your input and please don’t hesitate to contact me directly if you’d like to discuss this in more detail.

  2. To clarify, SB 901’s tree-harvesting exemptions referenced in this blog post apply when landowners intend to cut down trees for the purpose of reducing fire risk on a property, and intend to sell, barter, exchange, or trade the wood being removed. The landowner must also hire a Registered Professional Forester to prepare, sign, and submit the necessary exemption paperwork.

    Under those conditions a landowner of less than 60 acres can use SB 901’s exemptions to remove oak trees not greater than 26 inches diameter at stump height (as measured at 8 inches above ground level).

  3. I know that fire is considered a natural part of life in California, but actually only about 10% of the time, the other 90% of the time. It is a known fact that 90 plus percent of wildfires are human caused. I could live with the ones that occur naturally. Funny how nobody wants to talk about this fact.

    1. Anne. You are absolutely correct. CalFIRE/Board of Forestry have in the past refused to require structures to be less likely to burn. They fall back on existing requirements that new construction be more fire resistive. My sense of state law is that CalFIRE could initiate requirements for retrofitting structures in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) I think this is something the legislature must take on. Counties and cities are generally highly unwilling to accept new state laws that limit their local jurisdiction over building and zoning codes. All that said, there is a great deal more recent emphasis on (rural) education programs through Fire Safe Councils and other community based programs. My concern is that inaccurate information about vegetation management prejudices discussions of how to make life in the WUI safer. CNPS is engaged with CalFIRE/BofF with its attempts to create a state-wide vegetation management program. The program really ignores the alternatives–the big ones you mention–safer actions and safer structures in the WUI. All past attempts by CalFIRE/BofF to write an acceptable EIR have failed. It seems to me they are just trying to exhaust those of us who believe their EIR project alternatives (among other things) are inadequate.

  4. I want to know what the evidence is that commercial thinning, meaning mature trees are logged to pay for the thinning, reduces wildfire severity. On the contrary, I have seen good evidence that intact forests keep wildfires to a less severity while it is the logged forests where more severe wildfires take place. This is an inconvenient fact for the timber industry that finds ways to log for any situation.

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