California 2020 State Legislative Session for Wildfire: Some Wins While Others Measures Left in a Holding Pattern

Unlike the state's rough wildfire season, the end of California's 2020 legislative session is clearly in sight. This year, lawmakers considered a number of bills on the state's wildfire challenge. Among these were two measures aimed at strengthening California's defensible space requirements and helping Cal Fire assess properties and educate homeowners. One passed; the other did not.  

Resurrected after a veto last year by the Governor, AB 3074 successfully passed to bring the concept of the home ignition zone to the state's current 100-foot defensible space requirements. The measure directs the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to promulgate regulations to require “more intense” fuel reduction efforts within 30-feet of a structure and an “ember-resistant zone” within 5-feet of a structure. Wind-driven embers are major culprits in home destruction during wildfire events. Reducing the risk of ignition by removing fuel sources from around the home will lower the risk of home loss during wildfires.

While AB 3074 has been signed into law, there are still some bureaucratic hoops remaining. Most notably, the legislature needs to make sure all of it, the rulemaking, providing notice to property owners, and enforcement efforts, are funded in the annual budget process. However, strengthening these requirements for homes in at-risk areas is a big step in the right direction.

The bill that did not make it over the legislative finish line was  SB 1348. Among other things, this measure would have established a program to recruit qualified entities to assist Cal Fire in its assessment and education efforts around home hardening and defensible space. According to an article last year from the San Diego Union-Tribune, annually, Cal Fire only has the capacity to inspect about 10 to 20 percent of the parcels within its jurisdiction for conformance with the state's defensible space rules. And, even where it finds violations, the agency prefers education over fines. Given that, training third parties to provide non-regulatory support through assessments and education has the potential to be an effective force-multiplier for the agency.

This bill should be a priority item for the 2021 legislative session. In addition, lawmakers might also consider developing training and certification programs to create the trusted workforce needed to help property owners in implementing home-hardening measures, as well as meeting defensible space requirements.

AB 3074—and hopefully soon the provisions of SB 1348—are modest steps toward addressing the state's massive wildfire challenge. Small steps can add up though, especially if they become part of a comprehensive plan. While COVID-fueled budget crises muted state legislative efforts to fund desperately needed mitigation efforts this year, with over four million acres burned in a single season, the urgency is growing for California. In 2021, lawmakers will need to be bold in their actions.  

More information about the home ignition zone, defensible space, and related resources can be found on NFPA's wildfire webpage.

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Meghan Housewright
Director, Policy Institute

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