California lawmakers ratify new efforts at wildfire prevention and assessing who's responsible
By John Myers
With an urgency sparked by two consecutive years of deadly fires, California lawmakers have sent to Gov. Jerry Brown a collection of proposed laws to bolster prevention efforts and the readiness of residents, along with a controversial plan in which utility companies could pass some wildfire-related costs onto customers.
No proposal was more far-reaching or contentious than Senate Bill 901, the summer’s marquee wildfire measure and one of the last to be approved on Friday night before the Legislature adjourned for the year. The bill authorizes a five-year, $1-billion effort to reduce fire threats through tree and brush thinning programs that would include year-round prescribed fire. It would also streamline regulatory approval of fire reducing programs, and loosens some of the existing rules that govern the size of trees that can be removed.
But consumer groups and large industrial stakeholders were enraged by provisions in SB 901 that will offer financial help to utility companies. Though the bill was scaled back from an earlier effort to rewrite a liability standard that applies to the companies when their equipment is involved in sparking a fire, it nonetheless offers new power to the California Public Utilities Commission to offer concessions when appropriate.
A series of other bills that moved through the Legislature in its final days aims to improve California’s fire readiness in the coming years. A second proposal, Senate Bill 1260, would give permission for more planned “prescribed” burns with an effort to cooperate across lands owned by the federal and state government, along with private landowners.
Assembly Bill 2911, also approved Friday, gives electric utility workers new access to private land to trim trees and brush away from power lines, and boosts other efforts to create defensible space around structures. An additional bill could provide financial incentives for landowners to profit from wood products made with small trees removed to aid in fire prevention.