With worsening deforestation and fires, California fire prevention bills are urgently needed.
Over the last decade, California residents have grown accustomed to fire warnings and evacuations. Climate change, drought, and heatwaves make California more susceptible to forest fires. While these fires can occur for various reasons, dried vegetation and lightning attacks are the most common starters. Due to extreme dry seasons and fire suppression, forest fires in California spread fast and are difficult to extinguish. The number of incidents each year has increased since 2018. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), there have been reports that over seven thousand forest fires within this year alone, burning almost two million acres and destroying over three thousand structures. Notably, the five largest fires in California history occurred in the last four years. Dixie, a fire that began as recently as July, burned almost 1 million acres in three months.
As California faces worsening environmental conditions and deforestation, Governor Newsom turned to the state legislature to improve prevention efforts and prepare for the long fire season. Senate Bill 63 is an essential piece of fire prevention legislation focused on public education, vegetation management, public education, fire hazard severity zones, among other priority areas. There is also Assembly Bill 9 on fire safety and prevention that supports the findings of SB 63
SB 63 requires the Director of Forestry and Fire Protection to determine areas of the state that qualify as a fire hazard severity zone. This evaluation would be accessible to the public through a state-mandated local program. Cal Fire would also be required to report their spending about forest health programs to fiscal and policy legislature committees. In addition, SB 63 accounts for the wellbeing of local communities, especially those in areas considered "fire threatened." The bill calls for the implementation of roadside vegetation management, nonflammability infrastructure, risk reduction checklists, and community outreach projects. These initiatives would be funded through the existing local assistance grant program designed to promote wildfire resilience and educate the public. The passage of SB 63 will work towards diminishing fire risks and encouraging precautionary behavior with extensive resources and planning. In conjunction with SB 63, there is AB 9 that targets mitigation missions and community development. AB 9 requires the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program to support regional projects and formulate environmental strategies that cultivate fire-adapted and prepared communities. This bill provides grants to local entities to encourage collaboration, identify wildfire risks, assess ecosystem health, and design governance for forest health. AB 9 defines this coordination as the Deputy Director of Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation responsibility.
Wildfires have a longstanding impact on businesses, especially smaller ones. Property, equipment, and other assets can easily be caught and damaged in the crossfire. Not only are fire-prone areas less attractive to customers, but they typically face poor air quality and power and internet outages, which can impact service delivery. The 2017 Sonoma fire is one example; it stunted the freight and transportation industry when shutting down an Amazon outbound shipment center in Sacramento. Business owners are affected in different capacities, considering the work structures. Existing law requires anyone who owns, leases, or operates within an occupied space or structure in or near a designated high fire hazard area to maintain a space of 100 feet surrounding the building. SB 63 would additionally require that any fuel modification beyond the property line be attributed to state or local ordinance to maintain the 100 feet of defensible space. This bill also would require that the State Fire Marshal, Department of Housing and Community Development, and State Building Standards Commission expand and revise building standards for high fire hazard severity zones. Once established, home, property, and business owners will need to abide by such rules if they exist in the specified areas.
AB 9 was approved on September 23, and SB 63 was approved on September 28. Both bills will take effect on January 1, 2022. These bills are expected to improve safety, resilience, preparedness, and adaptability within regional areas directly impacted by the fires. For more information, please refer to AB 9 and SB 63's comprehensive bill reading. For those looking to access archived incidents of California fires, Cal Fire provides a detailed list of each incident since 2013. To learn more about fire safety or to receive updates on wildfires nearby, check out Cal Fire's Ready for Wildfire webpage and app.