Democrats who control the state Senate said Thursday they intend to advance a 10-bill package to the Assembly in the next week as California rushes to prepare for an intensifying drought and what officials fear could be a repeat of last year's record wildfire season.
The package seeks, in part, to boost state firefighter ranks long-term while beefing up standards for new housing developments. It also seeks to promote more prescribed burns and increased efforts to protect individual homes from wildfires.
“We know that there is no silver bullet. We must deploy multiple strategies ... to combat what will be and what is an evolving crisis, not just in California but the entire Western United States," said Sen. Mike McGuire, co-chairman of the seven-member wildfire working group created by Senate leader Toni Atkins. "We know that this evolving crisis is going to mean additional wildfires, wildfires burning larger, more destructive and intense.”
The long-term average of land burned each year in California has doubled in the past five years to 2,500 square miles (4,000 square kilometers), he said. Last year's fires scorched 4% of the state — 6,653 square miles (17,231 square kilometers), while killing 33 people and torching more than 10,000 homes and other structures.
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Yet there already are 8,000 homes in extreme fire risk zones, he said.
He's carrying a bill that would require cities and counties to create fire safety standards before they permit housing development in very high fire risk areas.
That means things like improved primary and secondary entry and exit roads, with plans for getting emergency equipment on the scene quickly. Local governments would have to plan for maintaining defensible space around homes and fuel breaks around communities.
Developers would have to build in the least-risky areas of the project and prepare evacuation plans. It would require the state fire marshal to develop additional mandatory standards that local governments would have to meet before allowing new housing in the most vulnerable areas.
The bill is opposed by builders and other business and real estate groups. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a different version last year.
“This is going to target almost half of the production in California, the half that is most affordable to Californians,” said Nick Cammarota, the California Building Industry Association's senior vice president and general counsel.
While the ideas sound logical, he said the bill is rife with ambiguities, inconsistencies and redundancies in the details, creating “a labyrinth of regulations that really are impossible to achieve.”
A second bill without opposition would extend current building standards for the highest-risk areas down to moderate-risk areas, while providing grants to promote defensible space around homes.
That's intended to help shield homes from wind-driven embers that can turn a single vulnerable home into “a bomb in a neighborhood that changes everything" by igniting those around it, Sen. Henry Stern said.
“It can’t just be prevention, we have to look at how we develop in the state of California,” Stern said. “To just blindly build deeper and deeper into very high fire severity zones without any of those safety standards in place will only exacerbate this risk further.”
Two other measures aim to aid former inmates. One would promote utilities’ hiring of former inmate firefighters, while the other would create a Northern California forest management training center for former inmates. A third would expand firefighters’ legal rights to include seasonal employees.
Another bill would create a new section within the state Office of Emergency Services to test and promote the latest wildfire prevention and suppression technology.
The state would make it less legally risky to use prescribed burns by requiring a “gross negligence” liability standard for those trained to start the preemptive fires and for property owners who hire certified burn bosses.
Two more bills are intended to help property owners in wildfire-prone areas who no longer can get or afford insurance. One would extend the state's property insurance plan of last resort to farms, ranches and grape growers, while the second would prioritize vegetation management projects in areas that are at risk of seeing insurance coverage disappear or become unaffordable.
Three-quarters of senators are Democrats, though they said they hope for bipartisan support in advancing the bills by the Legislature's June 4 deadline for initially passing bills. They also released a two-page “blueprint” outlining longer-term goals surrounding the legislation.
They plan to include $1 billion for new wildfire mitigation efforts in the budget they pass by June 15 on top of $536 million approved earlier this year. That tracks the governor's $2 billion proposal, they said, but his larger figure includes ongoing spending for things like new firefighting helicopters and fixed-wing airtankers.
The legislative package also includes a $5.6 billion borrowing plan to prepare for wildfires, drought and floods that lawmakers had intended to put before voters next year. But senators said much of that spending has been included in the current spending plan as the state enjoys a record, if temporary, revenue surplus.