State Policymaking Key to Widespread Adoption of Wildfire Mitigation and Hazard Reduction Measures

With wildfires slated to remain persistent and destructive, state governments must chart a course to risk reduction. The overwhelming nature of some recent fires, like California’s one million acre August Complex, means that course cannot simply rely on bumping up fire suppression efforts. Instead, communities in harm’s way urgently need changes to the built environment, resources for first responders, attention paid to the landscape, and a public that better understands how to reduce risk to their own homes. Bills that have been introduced in state legislatures so far this year show some policymakers are grappling with these goals.

Fittingly, legislators in California are perhaps the boldest. According to researchers, over the past 50 years—excluding the last four—wildfires have cost that state roughly $1 billion per year, adjusted for inflation. For each of the last four years, that cost has jumped to at least $10 billion per year. SB 55 aims to cut down on new risk by calling for a construction moratorium in all high-risk areas. However, while we must stop adding to the problem, the bill doesn’t address the bulk of the risk—homes that already exist.

Two other proposals, though, do attempt to address that risk. SB 12 would make a number of big changes to the state’s land use planning regime—requirements to push local governments to mitigate wildfire risk for both new and existing developments. In addition, it would enable Cal Fire to turn to certified third parties to assist with inspections and property assessments. Historically, Cal Fire has only been able to inspect a fraction of the properties within their jurisdiction. Boosting their capacity to educate, inspect, and enforce, especially with California’s new standards to clear flammable materials from the space immediately by the home, would greatly help their efforts to reduce risk.

SB 63 would also help Cal Fire in their duties to educate the public and assess properties by allowing qualified entities to perform property assessments and report the data to the agency. And, it would expand the use of California’s wildfire building codes to areas beyond just those with the most severe risk. This, and SB 12’s requirement for Cal Fire to update maps that determine building code requirements, are necessary to provide an updated picture of risk in the state and to reflect the fact that some places that have burned recently, like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, did not appear on high severity zone maps.

In Oregon, the legislature is set to consider wildfire legislation, too. Regrettably, Governor Kate Brown’s 2020 proposal for a robust wildfire building code program for the state did not advance. However, like last year, the proposal the Governor is expected to put forward this year will also direct the development of statewide maps of wildfire risk. That $50 million proposal would also spend $25 million on expanding the state’s firefighting capacity, but only $8 to $10 million on community mitigation programs.

Legislative sessions are fleeting. It’s already mid-February and Oregon’s session will wrap up in June; California’s in September. Arizona, which also experienced one of its most active wildfire seasons in 2020, has taken scant legislative action to address the growing problem and its session will be over by the end of April.

With millions of homes at risk across thousands of communities, mitigation will take time. But, as we learn more about how homes burn in the wildland/urban interface and how to prevent it, the time to start applying those lessons is now. State policymaking is key to widespread adoption of mitigation and hazard reduction measures. State lawmakers cannot afford to continue to set this topic aside.

Learn more about issues related to wildfire preparedness policy on page 66 of the spring edition of NFPA Journal.

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Meghan Housewright
Director, Policy Institute

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