Torched homes still smoldered a decade ago this month when a panel of experts convened to figure out what went wrong in the deadly Southern California wildfires of fall 2003 and suggest ways to prevent similar disasters.
The Blue Ribbon Fire Commission’s subsequent 232-page report ranks among the state’s most comprehensive looks at California’s wildfire danger. Over the years, though, its more than 40 recommendations have met an uneven fate.
Lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills dealing with topics cited in the report, from defensible space to additional fire engines. Some became law, while others fell victim to the state’s fiscal problems, opposition from various interest groups, and partisan disagreements.
Overall, fire officials say, the state is better prepared for the next big blaze. Yet more people than ever live in fire-prone parts of California, increasing the risk of accidental starts. The state continues to spend several hundred million dollars annually on fire protection. And global warming, experts say, will produce more frequent and larger fires.
“We’ve been making progress while at the same time recognizing the continuing challenges we’ve faced because of budget cuts and climate change,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who leads the Legislature’s joint committee on emergency management, a product of the blue-ribbon panel. “A lot of the problem, frankly, has been money,”
Within months of the report’s April 2004 release, lawmakers of both parties voted for a bill creating new construction standards in places that burn. The regulations carrying out the law, which took effect in 2008, have been hailed as a national model.
The Legislature also has passed several bills dealing with timber harvesting and vegetation overgrowth in fire-prone areas. A lack of money, though, has limited state-funded inspection efforts and brush reductions.
In addition, lawmakers have acted on subjects that were notably missing from the blue-ribbon report.
Disagreements among the panel’s members scuttled any recommendation on ways to raise more money for wildfire-prevention efforts. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown and majority Democrats pushed through a fee on homes in rural areas, although critics call it an illegal tax and have gone to court to overturn it.
Lawmakers also proposed several bills to increase state involvement in local land use decisions. The first law of its kind takes effect in January.
Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters union, who sat on the blue-ribbon panel, said public attention to the wildfire risk has waned after several years without major fire disasters. More needs to be done to address the danger, he said.
“We did make a difference. But we knew it was for the long haul,” Paulson said. “Unfortunately we will probably have to have another major event to bring expediency to some of these issues.”
The state was on high alert in the weeks before the 2003 wildfires. Years of drought and bark beetle infestation had turned Southern California hillsides into tinderboxes. In late October, the Santa Ana winds kicked up.
The first fires broke out Oct. 21 near Camp Pendleton. Within days, flames burned out of control across almost 740,000 acres in Southern California, including the 273,000-acre Cedar fire in San Diego County, the largest fire in state history.
Over two weeks, the fires destroyed 3,631 homes, killed 24 people and injured 246. Firefighters finally got the upper hand in early November with the help of snowfall in some areas.
“A disaster of this magnitude should never happen again,” then-Gov. Gray Davis said in a Nov. 3 announcement creating the blue-ribbon commission along with governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of their few joint actions following a bare-knuckle recall campaign. “We need to take a hard look at what we can do to minimize the loss of life and property from wildfires.”
The 18-member panel included local and state fire leaders, firefighter union representatives, federal officials and others. Commissioners issued their report in April 2004, with a warning from its chairman, former state Sen. William Campbell.
“Unless and until public policymakers at all levels of government muster the political will to put the protection of life and property ahead of competing political agendas, these tragedies are certain to repeat,” Campbell wrote in a letter presenting the panel’s final report to Schwarzenegger.
Lawmakers seized on parts of the report they agreed with. Democrats sided with union-backed proposals to increase staffing on fire engines from three firefighters to four, which supporters said would help keep fires contained and improve safety. Republicans backed proposals to ease restrictions on clearing timber and other vegetation.
Making homes in fire-prone areas less apt to burn was something members of both parties agreed on, passing a bill in 2004. A year later, the Building Standards Commission adopted rules for windows, vents, decking and other materials used in new construction in fire-prone areas. Experts said the changes make the homes up to 90 percent less likely to burn in a wildfire.
“The windows don’t pop. The embers don’t get into the eaves. There’s just a staggering difference,” said William Stewart, a former assistant deputy director of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who is now a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley.
The rules, though, don’t apply to an estimated 800,000 homes that predate the tougher standards. “The next 50,000 units built are not the problem,” he said, adding that older homes “are just scary beyond belief.”
Land use decisions an issue
Over the years, lawmakers expanded exemptions for removing trees to reduce fire risk. In 2004, lawmakers increased from 30 feet to 100 feet the amount of defensible space that property owners have to clear around structures. Supporters said the extra space helps ensure firefighters’ safety and limits a fire’s spread.
There were 106,000 defensible-space inspections during the 2011-12 fiscal year, down from 209,000 in 2009-10. Officials said the decrease reflected budget cuts. Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said the department will do many more in 2014 thanks to a $150 fee on structures in the 31 million acres of state responsibility area, as well as take other preventative measures such as clearing dead trees. The charge generated an estimated $85 million last year.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and several property owners filed a lawsuit to overturn the fee. Opponents contend it is really a tax that should have required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, not the majority approval it received. No trial date has been set.
Some experts, meanwhile, have said the state should focus its efforts on guiding local land use decisions. Max Moritz, an expert on fire behavior who runs the Moritz Lab, part of the University of California, complained that the blue-ribbon commission report “completely skirts” local government’s role in reducing the wildfire risk.
“Many people studying this have come to the conclusion that it’s a land-use and development pathology,” Moritz said. “It’s hard to see how we get out of it.”
In January, a law takes effect that, for the first time, gives the state a say in local land use. The measure, by former state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, requires local officials to take into account fire risk when they update their growth blueprints in areas with very high fire risk or where the state has the main firefighting responsibility.
“We will reach a point again where we see building recover,” Pimlott said. “And that’s when we really need to make sure we’re at the table helping to ensure that building occurs in a safe way.”