By: Katie Young
The 2017 California wildfires were some of the largest and most destructive on record. The Tubbs fire in Sonoma burned 5,643 structures and was responsible for twenty–two deaths. The Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties burned 281,893 acres and was the largest in California’s history until this summer’s Mendocino Complex fires overtook it at 459,102 acres. This destruction is occurring despite California’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in fire suppression over the last five years.
Assembly Members Jim Wood (D – Healdsberg) and Jim Patterson (R – Fresno) proposed AB 2551 as a response to these fires. The bill addresses one of underlying problems leading to California’s wildfire epidemic – forest health. Scientists and policy makers are realizing that the policy of the total suppression of fire in California has contributed to the conditions necessary for the recent trend of huge catastrophic wildfires. California forests burn regularly as part of the ecosystem’s natural function. The suppression of natural wildfire and other poor forest management decisions has led to densely packed forests with unhealthy trees that are less resilient to drought, climate change, pests, and fire.
In its original form, the bill served the dual purpose of promoting more “prescribed fire” through cooperative agreements between CalFire and private landowners and by creating a new Forest and Wildland Health Improvement and Fire Prevention Program. The latter program was intended to promote forest and wildland health, restoration, and resilience as well as improve fire outcomes, prevention, and preparedness throughout the state. The latest amended version of the bill eliminated the program focused on forest health, likely due to budget concerns, and AB 2551 now focuses solely on making it slightly easier for landowners to work with CalFire to bring low intensity fire back on to their land, and hopefully reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the future.
AB 2551 is supported by a variety of groups including: environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife, land trusts and conservation districts, state parks, local business interests, and insurance organizations. There are no groups opposing this bill.
AB 2551 has been enrolled and was presented to the Governor on September 10th, 2018.
To learn more about SB 822, listen to my interview on “In Session,” a podcast from the University of the Pacific Law Review.
Katie Young is a staff writer for the University of the Pacific Law Review and law student student at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.