State Issues

Next wildfire is coming – we must get busy now or suffer

Charred wreckage of homes surrounds the John B. Riebli elementary school in Santa Rosa after wildfires burned thousands of homes in the city last October. Firefighters saved the school, but many homes were lost.
Charred wreckage of homes surrounds the John B. Riebli elementary school in Santa Rosa after wildfires burned thousands of homes in the city last October. Firefighters saved the school, but many homes were lost.

It will come as no surprise to area residents, that California is experiencing a warm, dry winter. While the March rainfall was helpful in the north, much of southern California remains in a moderate to severe drought.

These conditions should serve as a red flag for communities just recovering from the last round of wildfires. Lack of precipitation leads to an abundance of dried out vegetation, which provides ideal conditions for firestorms like we saw last year.

A recent Stanford report suggests that even a moderate increase in global temperatures will make extreme weather a recurring event. As we take practical measures to guard against recurring drought, dying forests and endangered communities, we should adapt state law to ensure it matches the new weather patterns.

It’s important to start making substantive changes now, such as improving our early warning systems, particularly for residents in rural areas, enforcing defensible space requirements and forestry policies, and providing sufficient emergency response resources to local and state government.

It’s time to have a real conversation about local government planning and zoning in high fire severity zones. Local government must ensure they have adequate emergency response resources before approving new developments in areas that are at high risk for fire rather than passing on the cost of emergency response to the state.

Last year’s fires were both heartbreaking and destructive. Yet, increasing evidence suggests that it might have been merely an opening salvo of climate change.

Several scientific journals have warned that years of fire suppression efforts in California have disrupted the ecosystem, which depends on fire to thin brush and trees. Hence, trees ravaged by bark beetle and drought remain in place and are essentially acres of kindling awaiting nothing more than a lightning strike. It is vital that state and federal agencies be funded sufficiently to address the devastation in California’s forests before wildfires create further destruction.

Drought returns even as communities and working families across the state are rebuilding. While disaster funding approved in the recent federal budget will help, it will take an equal amount of creativity on a regulatory front.

Gov. Jerry Brown already demonstrated great leadership by issuing an executive order that suspended planning and zoning requirements in affected areas, as well as waiving state fees for manufactured homes and mobile-home parks. As these communities rebuild to California building standards requiring “ignition resistant” materials, we should incentivize all residents in high fire severity zones to retrofit to a similar standard. Just as tax credits are offered for solar retrofits to save energy, we should consider tax credits for building retrofits in high fire risk areas to save lives, and the high cost of emergency response.

Until then, we must fund the pre-positioning of local and state fire agencies when predictive fire weather models indicate the need. Placing resources closer, in advance, keeps fires smaller.

It is much more efficient and effective at keeping wildfires small through a rapid initial attack, rather than allowing them to grow into major conflagrations as history has shown.

The legislature should expedite laws requiring cell phone users in high fire risk areas to opt-in to an early warning system. This mandate should be supplemented by public-private partnerships designed to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of the system. It is essential to build in redundancies and geographic specificity to ensure when residents receive an alarm it’s something they will take seriously.

We should take another look at whether our current insurance and liability laws match this “new normal” to adequately protect our citizens. Insurance companies facing huge losses in the state are interpreting California law to blame others and avoid writing checks to customers. A few unscrupulous contractors commit fraud and further hurt wildfire ravaged victims. This must stop.

Despite any number of challenges facing the state, California has always managed to bounce back, and often turn challenge into opportunity. As we face the specter of a changing weather paradigm and renewed drought, it’s important that we take practical steps and a visionary regulatory approach to ensure the state’s residents and businesses are protected against what lies ahead.

Ruben Grijalva is the former Director of Cal Fire and State Fire Marshal under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.