Kamala Harris unveils billion-dollar bill to help Western cities plan for wildfires

Flames consume a car dealership as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP File Photo/Noah Berger/via Courthouse News)

(Courthouse News) With California trudging through another wildfire season marked by mass evacuations and widespread pre-emptive blackouts, Democratic presidential hopeful and Sen. Kamala Harris on Friday proposed $1 billion in credits for cities willing to fireproof neighborhoods and update vulnerable electrical systems.

Harris said Congress can’t continue to stand by and watch as California and other Western states continue to experience worsening wildfire seasons fueled by climate change.

“As the climate crisis creates the conditions for more widespread and intense wildfires than ever before, Californians must not be made to fight alone,” said Harris in a statement. “We know that more fires are coming, and we know what works to keep communities safe and help firefighters do their jobs – so let’s take action to get it done.”

The legislation by Harris and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., would create a $1 billion annual fund for communities willing to do things like improve evacuation routes, create defensible space and install microgrids that can provide power during emergencies. The Wildfire Defense Act would grant cities up to $250,000 to prepare plans and reimburse up to $10 million once projects are completed.

Though California’s current wildfire season has been relatively calm compared to the disastrous 2017 and 2018 seasons, the state was rocked by major fires in October that burned through vineyards in the north and others that threatened landmarks like the Getty Center and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the south.

The most destructive wildfire of the year so far was the Kincade Fire which burned 77,000 acres in Sonoma County and forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes. Hurricane-force winds gusts over 100 mph pushed the blaze across bone-dry foothills and dangerously close to the quaint Wine Country towns of Healdsburg and Windsor. Firefighters, who battled the October fire for nearly two weeks, ultimately kept the blaze from reaching the towns.

The California lawmakers’ proposal comes at a critical moment: Over the past decade, California has seen half of the state’s 10 largest wildfires and seven of its most destructive blazes. And a study published in July 2019 puts the blame largely on human-caused climate change.

Since 1972, the acreage burned by wildfires in California every year has increased fivefold – while the size of the average blaze has grown by an astounding 800%. The reason? Average summer temperatures across Northern California have risen by about 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to the study.

Furthermore, the state’s largest utilities – responsible for sparking many recent fires due to antiquated equipment or poor management – are routinely cutting off electricity to millions of Californians during high-wind events, hoping to avoid further wildfire liabilities.

A collection of environmental groups and local officials are already backing Harris and Huffman’s proposal.

“Combating these fires requires effective planning, science-based strategies and serious funding from Congress,” said Daniel Rossman, Wilderness Society director. “Communities need assistance to reduce dry vegetation adjacent to homes and incorporate fire resistant materials in new construction if they are near burn-prone areas.”

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who fought the October 2017 Tubbs Fire – at the time the most destructive wildfire in state history – says communities need more funding in order to continue fireproofing efforts.

“Santa Rosa has seen firsthand how quickly a wildfire carried by high winds can move into an urban area and take dozens of lives and destroy thousands of homes in a matter of hours,” Gossner said. “Our community, like many others across California, knows what actions we need to take to be better ready to respond to this new normal, but we desperately need new resources to help get there.”

The importance of updated evacuation planning was highlighted in the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the city of Paradise and passed the Tubbs Fire as the most destructive and deadly California wildfire.

With only one major highway leading out of Paradise, thousands of residents jammed city streets and many were forced to ditch their cars and escape the flames on foot. The traffic and abandoned cars made it difficult for first responders to aid elderly and disabled evacuees that were unable to leave their homes.

In the end, the wildfire burned more than 18,000 buildings in Paradise and Butte County and killed 85 people.

Under Friday’s proposal, cities can be reimbursed for not only improving evacuation routes, but for preparing plans to help and educate vulnerable populations.

“Over the past two decades, wildfires have caused enormous devastation across my district and all of California; crippling communities and businesses while decimating vast swaths of the unique California wilderness,” Rep. Huffman said of the proposal. “Although we are still faced with higher risks due to the effects of the climate crisis, there is still a great deal we can do to prepare our communities for these events and mitigate the infrastructural failures that cause catastrophic fires.”