In less than a year, some of the worst wildfires in California history have killed 52 people, destroyed thousands of homes and scorched an area larger than greater Los Angeles.
Helping victims is our immediate priority, but we must develop policies that will prevent future mega-fires.
The Assembly districts we represent are among the largest in the state, and the extreme risk of wildfire is a fact of life for many of our constituents. That is why legislative leaders asked us to serve on the new Conference Committee on Wildfire Preparedness and Response.
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Utilities, insurance companies and attorneys have been beating down our doors to discuss how to pay the bills for wildfire damage. They all have proposals that, not surprisingly, would pass the costs on to others.
Historically, fire survivors have been last in line when it comes to being made financially whole. While utility customers, homeowners, firefighters and others must be protected, we have to prioritize what must be done to prevent or lessen these fires.
That’s something the Legislature has failed to do for decades. We talk about California having the toughest environmental standards, but our successes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been wiped out by the tons of carbon dioxide spewed by these wildfires. To put things in perspective, just one major fire can release more carbon dioxide than all of California’s climate change programs can save in a year.
Our fuel load is off the charts. The threat of wildfires is growing by the day and we are not doing nearly enough to reduce that risk. Millions of dead trees are filling our forests with fuel, and the money we are spending on vegetation management is a pittance.
Of the $4.1 billion spent through California’s cap-and-trade program as of 2016-17, only 2 percent has been used for fire prevention and response activities. Compare that with the billions of dollars we spend fighting these fires and repairing the damage they cause. Investing in healthy vegetation management up front will save billions in the long run while protecting people and property.
It is critical that the Legislature craft policies that protect the environment and prevent wildfires. We can do this with proper funding, effective vegetation management and smart building. We must also encourage cooperation between federal, state and local governments, tribes and individual landowners.
The Legislature adjourns for the year at the end of August, but fire season is showing no signs of letting up. Every interest group can continue to put their stakes in the ground, but every minute we delay a real comprehensive plan puts another person at risk of their life going up in smoke.
Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, represents the 2nd Assembly District and can be contacted at Assemblymember.email@example.com.
Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, is Assembly Republican leader, represents the 1st Assembly District and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.