Photo Credit: Up and down the West Coast, 2018 has been a busy year for fire adaptation public policy. Photo by KQED QUEST shared via Flickr Creative Commons
California Clarifies Prescribed Fire Liability, Invests in Fuels Removal, and Focuses on Community-Level Work
by Nick Goulette, Watershed Research and Training Center
2018 marked a feverish year of drafting and passing wildfire-related policies in the state of California. Fresh on the heels of the 2017 wine country wildfires, and the Thomas Fire, lawmakers and constituents explored options ranging from regulatory reforms to budget appropriations. They considered numerous facets of wildfire management, including promoting fire adapted communities, increasing landscape resilience and improving fire response.
- SB 1260 (“Fire Prevention and Protection: Prescribed Burns,” introduced by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson):
- Establishes authority for CAL FIRE to work cooperatively with nonprofits and others on planning and implementing prescribed fire projects;
- Provides an objective description of what constitutes “due diligence” in the implementation of controlled burns, thus improving liability protections for burning on private property;
- Orders CAL FIRE to establish a burn boss certification program for individuals operating in the private sector;
- Mandates that CAL FIRE and the California Air Resources Board jointly develop and implement a public awareness campaign around the impacts of wildfire smoke and the trade-offs associated with smoke generated from prescribed fire; and
- Provides additional opportunities for CAL FIRE and the California Board of Forestry to weigh in when new development would overlay with zones of high wildfire hazard.
- SB 901 (“Wildfires,” introduced by Senator William Harold “Bill” Dodd):
- Directs California’s Climate Investment Fund to allocate $200 million per year for the next five years to the Forest Health and Fire Prevention Grants program. (This fund captures revenues from our state’s Cap and Trade Greenhouse Gas Auction program.) Several FAC Net members and partners were recently awarded funds (PDF, 136KB) from this program;
- Establishes a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemption for projects that will use state funding but will also involve NEPA; and
- Sets new CEQA exemption standards for certain thinning practices when the primary purpose is fuels reduction.
Despite receiving less attention from the media, several other bills introduced important wildfire resilience provisions. Here’s a recap on those.
- AB 2551 (“Forestry and Fire Prevention: Joint Prescribed Burning Operations: Watersheds,” introduced by Representative Jim Wood):
- Establishes a special “Headwaters Restoration Account” to support conservation and restoration investments in several of the state’s most critical watersheds that feed Shasta Lake, Trinity Lake and Lake Oroville. Many of these restoration projects involve wildfire risk reduction treatments and related erosion and debris flow prevention.
- AB 1956 (“Fire Prevention Activities: Local Assistance Grant Program,” introduced by Representative Monique Limon):
- Establishes a grant program for wildfire mitigation at the local level.
- Allows the state to make up to 25 percent advance payments on grants through the year 2024. This will make grant funding more accessible to a higher diversity of local organizations.
- AB 2091 (“Fire Prevention: Prescribed Fire: Insurance Pools,” introduced by Representative Timothy “Tim” Grayson):
- Orders state agencies and stakeholders to work with the Department of Insurance to explore the establishment of a state-backed insurance pool for prescribed fire on private lands.
The Watershed Research and Training Center, along with many of our partners from the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council and the statewide Fire MOU Partnership, was fortunate to be able to participate in dialogue with key stakeholders and lawmakers in the development of many of these provisions and bills. Many of the changes reflect ideas that have emerged from years of collective work trying to increase the role of prescribed fire and managed wildfire in community protection and landscape resilience.
2018’s legislative session has served as a primer for 2019, where we expect to see an increased focus on other facets of promoting fire adaptation. Community-level coordination; new community planning requirements; and an increased focus on the built environment, defensible space and evacuation are all on the table. We often describe community-level fire adaptation as a continuous process, and we expect the policy environment in which we carry out our important work will continue to evolve as well.
New Mandates and Funding Steer Washington Toward a Better Wildfire Future
As we head into the 2019 legislative session, it is important to reflect on the 2018 session and the progress made in Washington concerning fire adaptation. Three bills of particular importance were passed that will enhance conditions for our state’s continued approach to living more safely with wildfire. All three relate to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
- HB 2733 (“Prescribed Burn Manager Certification Program,” introduced by Representative Ed Orcut) directs the DNR to:
- Create a prescribed fire program to support the goals and strategies identified in the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan and the Forest Health Assessment and Treatment Framework (PDF, 36MB); and
- Create a prescribed fire manager certification program and increased liability protection for those who conduct controlled burning. (These mandates are supported with $403,000 in funding.)
- SB 6109 (“Concerning the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code,” introduced by Senator Kevin Van De Wege) directs the DNR to map values at risk in fire-prone areas to International WUI Code standards, using existing resources. It also directs the DNR to establish a technical assistance and grant program related to supporting municipalities in adopting and instituting WUI codes.
- HB 2561 (“Concerning Temporary Duties for the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee,” introduced by Representative Tom Dent) establishes new provisions for the DNR’s advisory committee. Under it, the committee must:
- Identify the areas in the state that are neither contained within an established fire district nor subject to a planned wildfire response;
- Examine the value of community programs that educate homeowners and engage in preventive projects within communities facing wildfire risk; and
- Develop plans to help protect non-English-speaking residents during wildfire emergencies, with interim recommendations provided to the legislature by December 2018 and finalized by 2019.
If you’re skeptical of the role of public policy in wildfire management on the ground, consider this reflection on a policy passed a few years ago in our state:
In 2016, following consecutive record-breaking wildfire years, the Washington legislature introduced over 60 bills concerning wildfire, community wildfire protection and forest health. While representative democracy is always messy, it was a particularly chaotic session. Many of those bills coalesced into the Wildfire Management Act (PDF, 330KB), which topped 41 pages and, in the end, was not signed into law. However, a few winners emerged from that process, including surprising legislation and directives promoting more fire. Engrossed Substitute House Bill (ESHB) 2928, led by Representative Kretz, instituted the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot Project (PDF, 25KB) to “ensure restrictions on outdoor burning for air quality reasons do not impede measures necessary to ensure forest resiliency to catastrophic fires.” The bill passed with only one nay vote. It also directed the DNR to design and implement a pilot project in coordination with three Washington forest restoration collaboratives and the Washington Prescribed Fire Council. Further connections through the Washington States Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network supported local community outreach and engagement around prescribed fire and smoke in communities near controlled burns. In total, the DNR and its partners designed and monitored 15 controlled burns, restoring 8,329 acres in eastern Washington. (These burns occurred on both state and federal lands.)
After analyzing the pilot project, they also developed recommendations on how to increase the long-term use of prescribed fire in the state. The recommendations address smoke management, air quality, ecosystem and habitat restoration, and community safety. This is a great example of a statewide policy creating mandates and funding needed to change the way that we live with wildfire.
For a 15-year-view of fire adaptation policy in Washington State, check out this draft summary (PDF, 697KB). Suggestions for additions and revisions are welcome.
A New Approach to Smoke Management in Oregon
The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality recently introduced a revised smoke management rule. The revisions are meant to be slightly more lenient toward smoke than the current rule. The agencies involved held a series of public meetings across the state earlier this year and, thanks to the strategic outreach of several partners, they received overwhelmingly positive comments:
“Controlled burns during optimal weather are infinitely superior to the unknown wildfire risks, both in terms of healthy/ safety and of the costs incurred.”
“I support the rewriting of the rules governing prescribed fires to provide increased forest management and strategically reduce the overforested lands in Oregon.”
Learn more about the evolution of Oregon’s smoke management plan in the blog post, How Do You Want Your Smoke? Why Oregon Is Exploring a New Smoke Management Plan by Ed Keith.
Not Just a Western Issue: A New Jersey Teaser
Although today’s excerpts feature the West Coast, fire adaptation is a central issue in numerous states and their related public policies. For example, did you know that New Jersey recently passed legislation related to increasing prescribed fire? What’s happening in your state?
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