By Toni G. Atkins | Notes from Toni
When a brush fire broke out in July along Creek Hollow Road near Ramona, it carried a familiar crackle. Eleven years ago, one of the most devastating fires in San Diego history came roaring out of the same backcountry. Stoked by Santa Ana winds, the Witch Creek fire leaped across I-15 and didn’t stop burning until it devoured 197,990 acres and 1,125 residences.
We were luckier this time. Firefighters on the ground and in the air corralled the fire before it could grow. But we would be wise to brace for the next one, and then the next one after that — because, due to conditions created by our changing climate, they are coming, far more rapidly than we would like.
Fire season used to be limited to early summer and fall — now it’s January to December. As destructive and deadly as 2017 was, 2018 is on track to surpass last year in the number of wildfires and the number of acres burned.
And as disaster-prone California turns even more perilous, we are confronted by a new reality: Not only must we come to the aid of communities that have been devastated, we must also take steps to reduce the risk of these massive fires.
Governor Jerry Brown and the Legislature have responded with legislation and dollars. The state budget that took effect July 1 includes $673.3 million in new money to help communities recover from the 2017 fires and to help reduce destructive fires going forward.
Several bills are making their way through the legislative process. For example, SB 1260 would fund the removal of dead trees from high-fire-hazard zones and establish a cost-sharing program to assist homeowners with fire-resistant improvements. SB 824 would prohibit insurance companies from canceling or not renewing a homeowner’s policy for one year in counties with a declared state of emergency.
But perhaps the most difficult task ahead of us as we enter our final month of the 2018 legislative session is figuring out who ultimately bears the burden of paying for their costs.
How do we portion out blame when the acts of humans conspire with the acts of nature? We can go on pointing fingers at each other, but we would be better served by acknowledging that wherever we have put down stakes, we’ve taken on risk. It’s now time to roll up our sleeves and get to work on a comprehensive plan that will better prepare us for the wildfires to come.
In that spirit, we have convened a conference committee of the state Legislature to deal with the question of wildfire preparedness and response. Beginning their work on July 25, five members each of the Senate and Assembly, Democrats and Republicans, are considering potential legislation to address the problem. All of the committee’s work is being done in the open, with agendas and reports available to the public.
A major issue the committee will tackle is what standard should be applied to fires caused by an investor-owned utility’s transmission lines. Should a different standard apply when a utility is prudent and manages trees and infrastructure properly vs. when a utility acts negligently and fails to maintain its infrastructure to the highest of standards?
Does the utility, alone, bear the costs of the property damage? If so, can the utility be allowed to pass along the costs to consumers by raising its rates? What if residents in such a high-risk zone fail to purchase adequate fire insurance? Does their loss become a public burden? Will they be subsidized to build again in the same high-risk zone?
These are difficult questions fraught with emotion. They deserve nothing less than to be dealt with in an above-board manner with state legislators working collaboratively with citizens, policy experts, the utilities, and all other concerned parties.
— Toni G. Atkins represents the 39th District in the California Senate. Follow her on Twitter @SenToniAtkins.