Politics Of Wildfires: Biggest Battle Is In California’s Capital

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As California's enormous wildfires continue to set records for the second year in a row, state lawmakers are scrambling to close gaps in state law that could help curb future fires, or make the difference between life and death once a blaze breaks out.

While the biggest political battle in Sacramento is focused on utility liability laws, lawmakers are also rushing to change state laws around forest management and emergency alerts before the legislative sessions ends this month.

A special joint legislative committee is examining how to shore up emergency alert systems so people know to evacuate, and how to prevent fires through better forest management. They're among the challenges facing many Western states.

Historically, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said during a recent interview in her Capitol office, "we have looked at fire as an enemy."

That was a mistake, said Jackson, a Democrat who represents Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, both of which were devastated by the enormous Thomas Fire last December. She's pushing legislation that would expand prescribed burns and other forest management practices on both public and private lands.

"We have been doing less and less to try to clear vegetation, to do controlled burns, so that we can reduce the dead vegetation that we have," she said. "As a result, we have conditions that are seeing fruition with these enormous and out of control fires."

Jackson says after years of inaction, everyone in California is finally at the table --including environmental groups — supporting the measure and engaging in a conversation around forest management.

Jackson also has a bill that would let counties automatically enroll residents in emergency notification systems; it's one of two bills aimed at shoring up gaps around evacuation alerts that were exposed by last years' deadly fires. The other is Senate Bill 833 by North Bay Sen. Mike McGuire; it would seek to expand use of the federally-regulated wireless emergency alert system in California.

Jackson noted that technology has changed and governments must adjust.

"We used to be warned about danger with the church bells and then during the Cold War with Russia we had a CONELRAD alert system ... well we don't have any of those things today," she said. "We rely upon people's cell phones ... fewer and fewer people actually have landlines today. So we've got to adapt and that's what this program will hopefully do."

At the national level, there's also political maneuvering over fires.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson visited a fire zone in Northern California earlier this month and promised to start providing federal emergency funding earlier. Meanwhile, during her recent tour of a fire area, California's U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris said she is pushing to expand federal funding for both fighting and preventing wildfires. Some of that funding is in a bipartisan bill that is co-sponsored by senators from 10 other states, many of them in the fire-prone West.

"Let's also invest resources in things like deforestation, in getting rid of these dead trees and doing the other kind of work that is necessary to mitigate the harm that that is caused by these fires," Harris said while visiting Lake County.

Dollars are important: The state has blown through its firefighting budget seven of the last 10 years, even as the annual budget has grown five-fold over the same period. This fiscal year started six weeks ago, and California has already spent three-quarters of its firefighting budget for the entire year.

That spending is "a very stark indication of the severity and the scope of these type of catastrophic wildfires," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown's Department of Finance.

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