Living with Fire Part 3: Legislative Solutions on the Horizon
By Greg Suba
At the beginning of each California legislative session, our state senators and assembly members introduce around 2,000 bills that become new state law if approved by both houses and signed by the governor. Working with CNPS legislative consultant Alfredo Arredondo, the CNPS Conservation Program identifies plant conservation-related bills among the lot – typically a subset of a few dozen – that we track and lobby through the legislative session (January to September). This year, we are seeing at least 14 wildfire, fire-safety, and forest fuels-related bills focused on four important areas:
- guidance for defensible space
- hardening existing homes against ember ignitions
- establishing new fire-safe building standards for new homes, and
- updating general plans to ensure new housing developments, small or large, will not be sited in high fire hazard areas.
As Cal Fire largely continues to focus on vegetation management, elected officials have taken up the slack by introducing legislation that would require address fire-safe defensible space, home hardening, and land-use planning measures
This is good news. CNPS has long acknowledged the need to address the equal goals of forest fuels reduction and increased forest resilience. However, California (Cal Fire in particular) has focused too much on vegetation as the cause of all our fire problems, and focused far too little on defensible space, the hardening of homes against ignition, and the prevention of new development in fire-prone areas in the first place. We’ve made comments to these points during the many iterative drafts of the state’s Vegetation Treatment Program EIR (VTPEIR, VTP, or CalVTP) for nearly a decade now, and will continue to do so. Therefore, the introduction of this year’s bills prioritizing these key issues is a very positive step forward for California.
While the current versions of these bills could still be improved by amendments – and nowhere is the truism, “the devil’s in the details” more applicable than in legislative language — the new bills would achieve three goals we’ve long sought for California.
Goals 1 & 2:
- Creating regionally-appropriate defensible space
- Fire-hardening existing homes & new fire-safe building standards
AB 38 (Wood) – Asm. Wood’s bill would create a new State Wildfire Preparedness Board and direct it to develop a regional approach to vegetation management and fire safety. It would do so in part by establishing 18 Regional Wildfire Prevention Districts, each of which would develop locally appropriate vegetation management plans. AB 38 would also establish guidelines for establishing appropriate defensible space, identify low-cost home-hardening retrofits, and appropriate $1B of funding for no / low-cost loans and grants to pay for them.
AB 1516 (Friedmann) – Asm. Friedmann’s bill would direct Cal Fire and the California Public Utilities Commission to develop guidance on establishing defensible space within 3 zones around structures (0-5’, 5-30’, and 30-100’), and within electric utility rights of way.
SB 190 (Dodd) – Sen. Dodd’s bill would direct the State Fire Marshall to create a state Defensible Space program that includes defensible space guidelines and enforcement tools. It would also establish new fire-safety building standards, and provide the public with a list of fire-safe retrofits for existing structures.
Goal 3: Fire-safe land-use planning
SB 182 (Jackson) – Sen. Jackson’s bill would direct the state (via the Office of Planning and Research (OPR)) to provide a clearinghouse of best examples of wildfire risk reduction, wildfire preparedness, and wildland-urban interface land-use planning for California’s cities and counties. Additionally, this bill would require cities and counties, when updating the housing and the safety elements of their general plans, to incorporate new ordinance requiring them to make findings based on substantial evidence before approving any developments within high fire hazard areas,.
As Cal Fire largely continues to focus on vegetation management, elected officials have taken up the slack by introducing legislation that would require Cal Fire, the state fire marshal, and other state entities to address fire-safe defensible space, home hardening, and land-use planning measures. With the political and budgetary influence Cal Fire currently wields within this new administration, their support for or resistance to these can make or break these bills. These and other bills are just over halfway along their long procession across legislature’s ritual march. CNPS will continue to track and engage in the progress of these and other fire-safety related bills this summer. Please watch for our updates and action alerts as the summer progresses.
Greg Suba is the CNPS Conservation Program Director.
Learn more about the CNPS Conservation Program and how you can help current efforts.