Close to Home: Building a Defense Against Wildfires

Monday, April 1, 2019

By Bill Dodd

(The Press Democrat, March 24, 2019)

The smell of smoke and the sound of sirens shouldn’t be the first indication to Californians that another wildfire is near. As we’ve seen in our own communities and, more recently, in Butte County, that approach has deadly consequences.

That’s why I’m calling for creation of the California Wildfire Warning Center, a joint venture with the Public Utilities Commission, the Office of Emergency Services and Cal Fire, to conduct statewide fire-weather forecasting so we can better predict when and where fires may strike and take action to prevent another costly disaster.

It’s one of several legislative steps I’m taking this year after working on the problem last year as co-chairman of the specially convened wildfire safety conference committee. We made progress on improving forest management and mandating new safety requirements for the electric grid, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed my bills enhancing insurance coverage, care for the disabled during disasters and garage door safety.

Still, there is much more work to be done, and I’m making several proposals for 2019. In addition to my Wildfire Warning Center legislation, I’ve introduced bills to increase compliance with the 100-foot defensible space requirement around homes, to indemnify the state budget against unexpected disaster response costs and to ensure trees are trimmed around power lines.

In the first, my thinking is people living in fire-prone areas must take steps to protect themselves. Properties with 100 feet of defensible space are eight times more likely to survive a wildfire. Unfortunately, there is no consistent education and enforcement of defensible space at the local level.

In the next, my disaster insurance proposal allows the state to buy a policy that would pay off in the event of a disaster. We need to manage our precious resources wisely as we continue to feel the effects of climate change. Last year, fire response spending was $947 million — nearly $450 million over budget.

Finally, it is clear utilities can’t be relied upon to remove vegetation around their power lines. My bill would bring the much-needed maintenance under close scrutiny of an independent third party like Cal Fire.

But the best defense against future infernos might be in forecasting fire weather and taking steps to prepare for it, like de-energizing transmission lines. That’s the focus of Senate Bill 209 — the California Wildfire Warning Center proposal. The bill will be heard in its first policy committee on Tuesday.

The idea is not new. Currently, investor-owned utilities are required to assess climatological and topographical risk factors in each service area, but they aren’t required to share that with Cal Fire in real time.

Methodology and technology differs widely from one utility to another. Also, there is a lack of localized weather data, especially wind data. Winds played such a devastating role in the 2017 wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties. In addition, there is little coordination in weather station deployment and a lack of data aggregation.

As a result, red flag warnings are issued without precision. Competing fire-weather forecasts and threat analyses create confusion. Decentralized monitoring slows response time and is an ineffective use of state resources.

In practice, the current system of fire-weather monitoring is deeply flawed.

My bill would change that. The Wildfire Warning Center would create a uniform system to lead all monitoring across the state, coordinating and verifying threat conditions.

The center would observe wind and weather patterns contributing to increased fire risk while setting technical standards for equipment and reporting requirements. Also, it would produce a fire-threat index covering every geographic area in California. Among the provisions in the bill is a mandate that utilities deploy at least one monitoring station for every circuit in high-risk fire areas.

SB 209 builds on an existing system and breaks down silos. It gives our residents a fighting chance when the red flag conditions arrive.

I hope you’ll agree it’s the kind of proactive steps we need to take to keep wildfires at bay.

Bill Dodd, D-Napa, is a state senator representing the 3rd District.