USA — On Saturday, September 27, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a package of bills aimed at improving Californias ability to respond to emergencies and natural disasters. A number of the bills, intended to boost California’s wildfire prevention and firefighting capabilities, may potentially affect those areas most prone to wildfire outbreak.
Just months after the devastating wildfire outbreak that hit areas of northern California such as Santa Cruz and Monterey, and southern regions such as Malibu, these high-risk areas may be looking at new laws that both attempt to prevent the outbreak of wildfires and simultaneously affect aid given to those areas most affected.
The governor signed a total of 10 new bills, some aimed at the prevention of natural disasters, and others aimed at providing additional assistance when natural disasters occur. “Here in California we know all too well the kind of destruction that natural disasters like floods, earthquakes and fires can cause, and this comprehensive package of legislation will enhance the state’s emergency response efforts so we are even more prepared the next time disaster strikes,” Governor Schwarzenegger said. “It’s equally important that when a disaster or emergency situation arises, we get the resources and assistance to the victims as quickly as possible-and this legislation will help make that happen.”
The five bills enacted to help prevent natural disasters include: SB 1595, which updates existing fuel management laws by changing the space requirements that separates structures from potential wildfire fuels, AB 2859, which expands the authority of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to thin trees and other vegetation, AB 2742, which will add leased or rented firefighting equipment for which the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) can issue a restricted license, AB 3075, which gives first priority for the sale of firefighting equipment to a local agency that serves rural areas and SB 1668, that will require the State Fire Marshall to compose and adopt regulations that establish minimum protection requirements for laboratories and research facilities that handle hazardous materials.
In addition to prevention, Governor Schwarzenegger also enacted five bills that will provide additional resources to those most heavily hit by California wildfires. These bills include: AB 38, which will combine the Office of Emergency Services (OES) and the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) into one cabinet-level entity called the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA); AB 2327, which requires those entities that provide support during a disaster to provide assistance without asking for information or documents that are not strictly necessary to determine eligibility under state or federal laws; SB 1227, which reinstates the Disaster Response Emergency Operations Account (DREOA) that was set to expire at the end of 2008 until 2014; AB 2796, which allows the OES to create a statewide registry of private businesses and nonprofit organizations that would like to provide relief in times of emergencies; and lastly SB 1213, which will allow a mobile health care unit to move to a new location and notify the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) 24 hours prior to operation (unless in time of emergency) instead of the 15-day notification requirement.
However, the bill that most closely will affect high-risk communities is SB 1595. Existing law requires any person who owns, leases, controls, operates or maintains an occupied dwelling near high-hazard areas remove all brush, flammable vegetation or other combustible growth for a prescribed number of feet and those who live near mountainous terrain, forest-covered lands, brush-covered lands or grass-covered lands to completely remove all brush and flammable vegetation.
The newly enacted law states, This bill would delete certain terrain qualifications thereby applying these provisions to any land within a very high fire severity zone as designated by a local agency without regard to the type of terrain. The bill also changes the current brush clearance requirements and now would require the owner of the property to manage fuel materials within 100 feet of the dwelling or building. The bill would require that fuel found in vegetation, in man-made objects and in connection with improvements attached to the structure be managed by collecting and disposing of combustible matter and irrigating living plants as required to sustain the species during exposure to a wildfire. Local agencies would be authorized to place alternative requirements in effect in areas where water shortages exist.
“This year California has already faced a destructive fire season with more than 2,000 fires burning about 1.2 million acres, underscoring the importance of legislation signed today that will help us do even more to prevent these fires from starting in the first place,” Governor Schwarzenegger said.