USA — 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.”