SPEAKING OUT (OP-ED) – Fighting Fire with Legislation

By State Senator Andreas Borgeas (R-District 8)
The 2018 fire season was by far the most devastating in California history, both in the loss of life and the loss of forest and grassland acreage. In fact, two days after I was elected to the Senate, the Camp Fire broke out. Eighty-eight people lost their lives, the city of Paradise was destroyed, and nearly 240 square miles were burned.  
Many factors including prolonged drought have magnified our forest management problems and have ultimately extended our fire season. The legislature has been working earnestly on forest management since last year and continues its work with the California Department of
Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the California Public Utilities Commission to improve forest management and reduce the severity of future forest fires.
This year I am co-authoring several pieces of legislation that aim to help local governments cope with and recover from the prolonged fire season. Assembly Bill (AB) 1375 introduced by Assemblyman Bigelow expedites the removal of dead and dying trees by reducing the share of the cost covered by local governments. Senator Galgiani’s Senate Bill (SB) 632 expedites the California Environmental Protection Act (CEQA), specifically for vegetation management. Finally Senator Dodd’s SB 190 will require the State Fire Marshal to create best practices that local governments can use to better protect their communities from future fires.
Public lands and cooperation
One key challenge is how to responsibly manage forests and grasslands while preserving their natural beauty for residents and visitors. In California, 58 percent of the forestland is owned and managed by the federal government, while still another 39 percent is privately owned.
Only three percent of California’s forestland is owned by the State of California. 
Currently, Cal Fire has a cooperation agreement for the exchange of fire protection services with federal wildland fire agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service. This partnership allows the closest agency to respond to an emergency regardless of jurisdiction. 
During the Governor’s State of the State Address in February, he tasked Cal Fire with publishing a report on protecting vulnerable communities from catastrophic wildfire. This report, published in early March, identified 35 communities for immediate attention. These higher risk communities met the following criteria: percentage of residents without access to a car, over the age of 65 or under the age of 5, and the percentage of families below the poverty line. 
Cal Fire has also highlighted that they have been working to fully implement last year’s highly controversial AB 2911 (Friedman). Most significantly the law granted authority to utility companies to trespass on private property to trim trees that could threaten power lines. 
It also requires the state to update building codes to reduce fire risk, identify dense subdivisions with only one exit route, and encourage local governments to create new or improve existing access routes to increase fire safety. Finally, the new law allows any property owner to apply for a permit to triple their defensible space around a structure, from a 100 foot firebreak to up to 300 feet.
The rules and regulations put in place by this new bill attempt to address wildfires before they break out. Similarly Cal Fire has highlighted the need to follow multiple paths to reduce risk, including hardening homes against fire, working to create ember-resistant structures, increasing defensible space around homes, and expanding their fuel treatment projects. 
What we have learned from the changing landscape of California’s fire season is that many factors contributed to the cause of these fires, and new tactics must be employed to reduce the risk of future wildfires. 
State Senator Andreas Borgeas (R-District 8) has a local office at 6215 N. Fresno Street #104, Fresno, CA 93710. The phone number is (559) 253-7122; website: https://borgeas.cssrc.us/.

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