By Elinor Aspegren (PZ ’20)
2017 in California was characterized, among other things, by the wildfires that ravaged the state. Over 9,000 wildfires raged across California, burning down 10,000 structures and killing at least 46 civilians and firefighters.
The current California wildfire policies did not aid the populus as much as they should have. Therefore, major changes to California wildfire policies are necessary. Over the past year, California lawmakers have proposed policy changes that better service the populus during and after major wildfires.
Of the 66,131 wildfires of 2017 across the United States, California had the most of any state. California’s fire season ranges from late spring to autumn, with dry, windy, and often hot weather conditions wildfires. These wildfires can be exacerbated by strong, dry winds, known as “Diablo Winds” in northern California or the “Santa Ana Winds” in southern California.
Investigators have not determined what caused the 2017 wildfires in Northern and Southern California.
In October, over 250 fires ignited in Northern California, killing 44 people. In contrast, a series of 29 fires that blazed in Southern California killed only 2 people. The scale of the fires in southern California, to be sure, were smaller than those of Northern California, yet this disparity in loss of lives is notable.
As human life is supremely valuable, it is imperative that future policies ensure fewer people die. Some experts chalk the high number of deaths in Northern California to the limited public warnings to civilians. Sonoma County and Mendocino County officials have faced criticism for not using the federal alert system to send loud alerts to wake those in harm’s way the night of the fire. This policy did not alert many who may be sleeping or not in tune with the news.
County officials in Northern California justified not turning on these region-wide alerts through their fear of igniting a panic and gridlock of evacuation routes — which would endanger more lives. Alternatively, in Southern California, state officials sent these alerts to the 12 million residents of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles.
To ensure this sudden panic does not happen again, Sens. Mike Mcguire (D- North Bay) and Hannah Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) proposed two bills, SB 833 and SB 821, that would expand the reach of these alert systems. This would also give California’s Office of Emergency Services greater jurisdiction to assist local governments in developing their own alert systems and to issue alerts themselves.
Governor Jerry Brown submitted a proposed budget to the legislature on Jan. 10 that would give $2.27 billion to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to spend on battling the blazes. An additional $2.3 billion of the budget would be used for economic uncertainties, which could include things like responding to natural disasters.
Another large focus of proposed legislation regards insurance policies, as many homes and the belongs within them were devastated by the fires. Proposed bill SB 897 would force insurance companies to accept consumers’ possession reports. If passed, SB897 would retroactively apply to wildfire victims last year. Other notable bills targeting insurance companies include Assembly Bill 1722 from Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), which gives property owners three years to rebuild their home after a natural disaster and still receive the full replacement cost from their insurance company, and AB 1797 from Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) requires an insurance companies to provide an estimate of replacement costs to homes.
It is important to note the severity of wildfires in California will only get worse with climate change. This means these proposed initiatives are even more imperative. Two of the three largest wildfires in California’s history have happened in the last four years. As prolonged droughts and higher temperatures bring more wildfires, the greatest damage will be in developments near the foothills, forests or other open land. Roughly 6% of the state, mostly the Southern California coast and the Bay Area, fall into this category.
While California state law now requires counties to develop policies to address the risks that climate change poses to their communities, until these policies are implemented, people and their livelihoods will remain at risk. Wildfires are growing ever more serious, as are their implications, so this change in policy shows that lawmakers are taking the management of human lives equally as seriously.