These Big Plans to Protect California Homes From Wildfire Fell Short in the Legislature

Efforts to retrofit homes against wildfires like this 2013 blaze in Southern California stalled in the state Legislature.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

After 86 people in the town of Paradise lost their lives in a massive wildfire last year, California lawmakers vowed to prepare the state for future infernos. But while millions of dollars are going toward new firefighting crews and technology, some say the state is overlooking an area in dire need of help: making homes and buildings safer.

Several bills in the state Legislature were drafted to help millions of homeowners in high fire-risk areas retrofit their homes with fire-resistant materials. This was considered critical because most of these homes were built before California enacted its modern wildfire building codes.

Other bills required stepped-up inspections of fire-prone vegetation around structures.

But due to a lack of funding in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget, the bills were scaled back. They now await Newsom’s signature.

Another bill, SB 182, would have directed cities and counties to limit how much housing is built in very high fire-hazard zones absent adequate firefighting capacity, evacuation routes and defensible space enforcement.

Due to concerns it could reduce the state’s housing stock, the bill failed to pass by the time legislators adjourned in September.

Many fire experts have warned that California must make existing communities safer, if it's going to tackle wildfire risk.

“I personally believe that spending money upfront to prevent wildfires is a better use of funds than having to spend a lot more money later on to deal with a tragedy,” said Assemblymember Laura Friedman, who authored one of the bills, AB 1516, now on Newsom’s desk.

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Awaiting Newsom’s Signature: Improving Defensible Space, But No Cal-Fire Inspection Requirement

Many houses destroyed in wildfires aren’t consumed by advancing flames; they’re ignited by embers that are blown ahead of the fire and land on brush, trees or grasses next to a home.

State law requires homeowners in fire zones to minimize and clear vegetation to create “defensible space” within 100 feet of their home. In fire zones outside city limits, Cal Fire inspects homes and can issue citations for homeowners who don’t comply.

While Cal Fire has a goal of inspecting 33 percent of structures in its jurisdiction each year, a KQED investigation found the agency only did half that in 2018. In some parts of the state, only 6 percent of homes in risky areas were inspected.

“It’s become really clear that our defensible space has been insufficient to protect homes from embers,” said Yana Valachovic, a fire expert with UC Cooperative Extension. “What’s immediately adjacent to a structure affects the probability of a structure's survival.”

The first draft of AB 1516 would have required Cal Fire to reach its 33 percent inspection goal. That would have meant hiring dozens of additional inspectors, potentially costing millions.

But without support from Gov. Newsom to fund the bill, its supporters struck a compromise. Local groups, like fire safe councils, the California Conservation Corps and those affiliated with Native American tribes, would be empowered to make defensible space assessments of communities.

Those groups could look at vegetation around homes but would not have the same authorization as Cal Fire to write citations requiring homeowners to reduce it. The groups would instead send that information to Cal Fire to inform its inspection program.

“We believe that this will get Cal Fire to its 33 percent inspection goal,” said Assemblymember Friedman. “I would like to see 100 percent, which will mean more funding, but I do think that using these trained third parties is a really good, cost-effective way to get statewide inspections.”

If Newsom signs the bill, it will also create new defensible space requirements within 5 feet of homes and buildings in high-risk fire zones. Cal Fire would develop the guidelines for these “ember-resistant” areas, potentially limiting the kinds of vegetation and mulch that can touch a building, something fire experts strongly recommend.

“The science has been clear for quite a while, but it’s been slow to incorporate into codes, standards and practices,” said Valachovic.

Awaiting Newsom’s Signature: Home Retrofitting Fund Created … With No Money

Wind-driven fire embers can also ignite a home by landing on its wood roof or even entering an attic vent. Some communities, like Big Bear, have provided residents with grants to replace wood roofs with those that are fire-resistant. Fire experts say even more affordable retrofits, like covering attic vents with mesh, can also make a difference.

To help homeowners across the state, Assemblymember Jim Wood introduced AB 38, a bill that would create a $1 billion fund for no- or low-interest loans for home retrofits.

But when it became clear the funding wasn’t prioritized in the state budget, the bill was amended. The retrofitting program would be created, but the actual funding would have to be found at a later date, potentially relying on federal hazard funds from FEMA.

“This year we made some very good steps in the right direction to help protect homes and communities," said Wood. "But we still have a massive hill to climb and we need to climb it much faster to make sure communities are as safe as they can be as soon as they can be."

Housing vs. Wildfire Protection: Restrictions on New Construction Stalls

Lawmakers also took up one of the biggest debates around wildfire: balancing the state’s desperate need for new housing with the need to keep housing out of fire zones.

Imposing development restrictions has been a third-rail of fire policy. When asked about it in April, Newsom responded that he wouldn’t advocate for a ban on building in high-risk areas.

"I've never seen a deep analysis," Newsom told the Associated Press. "And I think one has to be cautious about that."

This session, State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced SB 182, a bill that sought to dissuade local governments from building in very high fire hazard zones.

The bill required areas in which multiunit developments are approved to have a funded defensible space enforcement program, adequate emergency response capacity, and low-risk areas where residents can shelter from fire.

“We do have to build, but on the other hand, we don’t want to see another Paradise,” said Jackson. “This bill is designed to work with those competing interests and is designed to meet the needs of both.”

But the bill got tangled up in another controversial California issue: local requirements to build housing, set to help address the state’s housing crisis.

While Jackson’s bill specified that the wildfire building restrictions couldn’t be used to excuse an overall region from its housing requirement, some lawmakers thought it didn’t go far enough to protect housing mandates in individual cities.

“The way the bill is structured right now, it would let cities like Berkeley and some other cities off the hook and reduce their housing obligations when they have plenty of non-wildfire areas to build,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of the Senate Housing Committee.

But Wiener agrees with the bill’s provision that regions should consider their fire risk when determining how much housing should be built.

“Cities where most of the land or all of the land is in a high wildfire risk area?” he said. “We should not be building there.”

The bill failed to pass at the end of the legislative session in September, as lawmakers struggled to hammer out a compromise.

“As we enter another fire season, I’m concerned that a lot of localities are going to be making a lot of bad decisions because we haven’t rung the bell that you can’t do this any longer,” State Sen. Bob Wieckowski said, when it became clear the bill wouldn’t proceed.

Wiener says he’s confident the bill can be passed in early 2020.

“The delay is going to be a very short delay,” he said. “Taking a little bit of extra time to make sure we get it right is not going to harm anyone.”

Where State Funding Is Going: Emergency Response

As soon as he took office, Newsom announced that tackling California’s wildfire readiness would be a priority for his administration.

“If anyone is wondering if climate change is real, come to California,” he said in April. “We are in a very precarious state, literally and figuratively. It requires us to adapt. It requires us to be nimble. It requires us to meet the moment and meet the challenge. “

The state is spending more than $900 million this year preparing for fires. More than $240 million is being directed at new firefighting crews, purchasing new aircraft and acquiring new technology. Large-scale forest management and vegetation-reduction projects received $225 million. Other funds are directed at improving emergency warning systems and 911 services.

Improving existing homes and buildings gets little mention in the budget document, only receiving a one-time $5 million infusion for defensible space programs.

While fire experts say improving emergency response is critical, shoring up existing communities will be as well.

“There’s no single solution that’s going to solve the fire problem,” said Valachovic. “It takes an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

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