The horrendous wildfires that have ravaged Northern and Southern California, especially in the past two years, have gotten the Legislature’s attention.
In June, at the request of Gov. Jerry Brown, legislative leaders established the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee, to study and consider legislation “to strengthen disaster preparedness and … appropriate policies to respond to the increasing fire danger.”
While the committee’s creation was to address wildfire issues facing pubic utilities, such as preparation, equipment, accountability and liability, the committee quickly realized that solutions were more comprehensive than just the scope of utilities’ responsibility. Further, despite Pacific Gas and Electric’s threat of bankruptcy without legislative assistance, the members were not about to be steppingstones for PG&E or other utilities.
By midnight Aug. 31, when the legislative session ended, the committee had in the waning moments convinced enough of its colleagues to support several bills, including a major revision to Senate Bill 901.
But one of those was not the Hill’s State Sen. Jeff Stone, who was a member of the committee. Since the final bill language was only available days before the session ended, Stone promised Committee Chair Bill Dodd (D), with whom he has a good relationship, that he would vote to bring it to the Legislature’s floor, but could not be relied on to support the whole bill until he had read its language.
“My priorities were to make sure the victims of fires were taken care of,” Stone said. For example, he wanted language to expedite rebuilding of homes, after the owners had filed insurance claims and were awaiting those funds. “I wasn’t elected to represent PG&E,” he stated.
The final 48 hours of the session was crazy, a frenzy, Stone said. Ultimately, Stone abstained in the final Senate vote.
Brown has not signed any of the legislation yet. But since he encouraged the Legislature to address the utility issue, most pundits assume he will approve these initial steps.
The hundred-page bill authorizes utilities and the state to do more to prevent and to prepare for wildfires. Investor-owned utilities will have to file more comprehensive plans about their actions to prepare for wildfires and when the fires threaten equipment, such as protocols for de-energizing electric lines.
It appropriates $200 million annually for five years for forest health, fire prevention and fuel reduction. This would be used for thinning and more frequent prescribed burns. Stone felt this was not a long enough period to improve forest health.
“It will take at least 10 years to clear 129 million dead and dying trees,” Stone opined. But the five-year commitment seems misleading to Stone, who argued that one session cannot commit future Legislatures to provide the funding. He preferred that the $1 billion be appropriated now, set aside and use $200 million from the reserve for each of the next five years.
The bill also creates new exemptions in the Forest Practice Act to encourage and make tree harvesting easier and more effective. The largest trees on each site would be protected. The exemptions are for fuel reduction and small landowners.
Public agencies or nonprofits funded with fuel reduction grants may sell logs from the construction of fuelbreaks. This section of SB 901 reminded Stone of the work benefiting the Hill, which the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council does.
While he supports streamlining to allow more thinning and fuel reduction, Stone felt the five-year limit was too short. “Especially since it takes a couple of years to develop the plans,” he noted. And this was one reason he abstained in his floor vote for the bill. “I wanted to reduce the onerous application process to private property owners trying to clear brush.”
Besides additional funding, Cal Fire will have a Wildfire Resilience program to assist nonindustrial timber owners, providing more assistance to local agencies on the “Fire Risk Reduction Community” list.
This bill authorizes using financing to reduce the utilities’ direct costs associated with damages for wildfires. The financing would be available for the amounts borne by ratepayers of the 2017 wildfires or of future fires. The use of a rate-recovery bond is the securitization of a cash-flow stream generated by a fee charged to utility customers.
Those who opposed SB 901 usually referred to these provisions as a PG&E bailout.
These provisions, to which consumer advocates objected, allow utilities to assign some costs directly to customers — and to borrow money to cover other expenses through bonds repaid with higher utility bills — if state regulators deem it is “just and reasonable” based on an array of factors, including the utility’s conduct.
The bill also establishes the Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery Commission within the Governor’s Office of Planning Resources. This commission, composed of five members, will hold public meetings to assess, report and make recommendations surrounding the issues of catastrophic wildfire costs, especially affecting utilities.
Other bills related to wildfires also passed. SB 1260 removes several limitations and impediments to prescribed burns. It encourages the burns as a tool to strengthen forest health. It also authorizes funds for air resource boards to collect more air-quality data.