After one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire seasons in California history, it would add travesty upon tragedy if officials don’t take significant steps to prepare for the next fire season.
Thankfully, it appears that lawmakers and officials are learning some of the right lessons, even as families and communities continue trying to recover and rebuild.
Congress finally fixed a major flaw in federal funding that took money away from crucial wildfire prevention programs. The sweeping budget deal that President Donald Trump signed last week sets aside $2 billion a year for battling wildfires, treating them more like the natural disasters they are, just like hurricanes.
In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than half of its total budget on fighting fires and has had to borrow from its own accounts, including those for clearing brush and dead trees. That made no sense.
There are some trade-offs. The fix doesn’t fully kick in until the fall of 2019, though the budget does include $500 million more for fighting fires this year. And there will be fewer environmental safeguards that could lead to more tree removals, so that bears close watching.
In another major development, Pacific Gas & Electric announced last week that it will turn off the electricity during extreme fire conditions such as high winds. The new policy is emerging as the utility faces blame – and lawsuits – over reports that its downed power lines sparked many of the devastating wine country fires last October.
Trying to show it will be a better corporate citizen, PG&E also plans to more consistently inspect and trim vegetation and trees near its 100,000 miles of power and transmission lines. In a full-page newspaper ad on climate change, the utility says it has nearly doubled spending on those efforts.
The wine country fires, along with other blazes in Northern California, killed 44 people and produced $9.5 billion in insurance claims, making them the most expensive in California’s history. The Southern California wildfires last December resulted in another $2.1 billion in claims.
Insurance is a more complicated issue. While there are increasing complaints about policies being canceled or spiking premiums after major wildfires, insurance companies have to be able to consider risk in writing policies and setting rates.
Legislators need to find the right balance between making sure homeowners are treated fairly, but also not encouraging too much development in areas that are likely to burn. There are about 3.6 million homes in areas with dense vegetation – what’s called the wildland-urban interface – including 1 million considered to be at high or very high risk of fire.
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones is supporting a package of legislation to aid homeowners, both in obtaining adequate coverage and in expediting claims if the worst happens. Some have been introduced as bills; others have not yet. One such proposal would require fire insurers to offer or renew coverage in these danger zones in many cases if homeowners have taken steps to protect their property under guidelines approved by his office. Another would make those properties eligible for premium discounts.
A third would require that companies only use wildfire risk models, approved by the insurance commissioner, that take into account the density of vegetation surrounding the property, access for emergency responders and any individual or community efforts, such as firebreaks and stricter building codes.
Legislators should consider what’s been introduced, and add some version of Jones’ proposals. The higher likelihood of wildfires is one of the many consequences of climate change. Public policy has to keep up. The revisions in federal fire funding and by PG&E are steps forward, but there is much more to do.