SB 901: Wildfire in the Legislative Spotlight

Wildfire, a threat that many residents of California grapple with on a now-daily basis, became the highest priority for the California State Legislature this year. Legislation approved during the last week of the legislative session and recently signed by the Governor will help residents, timberland owners, and land managers reduce wildfire risk and improve the health of forests.

AlfredHGolub RimFire ED Blog 250x200The new law, SB 901, will help residents get funding and services through their local fire safe council or local government to help improve defensible space and make other fire safety improvements on their property. In addition, owners of nonindustrial timberlands will gain access to services through a new CAL FIRE program that will help them plan and implement improvements that reduce fuel load, implement fuel breaks, and increase overall forest health on their land. 

Sierra biomass facilities – which take in fuel from overstocked forests making them less prone to catastrophic fire – receive a boost by extending power-purchase contracts by five years. These facilities are providing jobs and attracting much-needed investments in communities where they exist such as Loyalton, Jamestown, and Burney.

From a public policy perspective, one of the most interesting and impactful provisions requires the Air Resources Board (ARB) to quantify the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from wildfires under current and historic (pre-fire suppression) conditions. Despite the fact that catastrophic wildfires are major emitters of GHGs (GHGs from the Rim Fire equalled San Francisco’s total emissions for a year), emissions are not counted by the ARB. Quantifying GHGs from wildfires will bring more attention – and eventually more funding – to efforts that reduce wildfire risk and severity such as thinning and forest restoration. 

Perhaps the highest-profile component of SB 901 defines how utilities are allowed to recoup costs from wildfires. The new law outlines a process where utilities, if the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) determines that costs are justified, can work with the CPUC to issue bonds and collect ratepayer funds to pay down wildfire costs over time. 

While not ideal, this process protects wildfire victims and ratepayers by allowing costs to be repaid over time rather than through a one-time payment which would cause a massive rate increase. Additional provisions safeguard ratepayer funds from being used to pay for utility employee bonuses or other financial rewards. 

Sierra Business Council will closely monitor the rollout of these new programs and requirements over the next several years to ensure that Sierra residents, businesses, and public agencies reap the benefits of this far-reaching legislation.

A more comprehensive overview of all of SB 901’s impacts on the Sierra can be viewed here. Additionally, more information on other policies approved by the Legislature impacting the region this year can be viewed in my previous blog post here.

Rim Fire image courtesy of Alfred H. Golub