State Assem. clears the road for wildfire prevention

The California Assembly unanimously passes two assembly bills geared toward wildfire prevention, the bills now await passage from senate

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Assemblyman Vince Fong is concerned about the looming threat that wildfire damage can wreak on communities in not only his district but all over California. Evidently the rest of the California Assembly agrees as they passed two of his bills combating wildfire flames last week.

On May 31, two critical pieces of wildfire prevention legislation, introduced by Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), passed out of the assembly with unanimous bipartisan support. Assembly Bills (AB) 295 and 297 are two separate pieces of legislation that work in tandem and complement each other as the state is preparing for fire season according to Fong. The assemblyman is hopeful it will pass through the senate and he said he hopes to see it on the Governor’s desk soon.

“The impetus for the bills are certainly apparent, from the standpoint that the state is heading into a fire season and we know we need to do everything possible to continue to work to reduce fire risk in our communities and we in the Central Valley, we’ve seen that firsthand,” Fong said.

AB 295 would require the state to start roadside maintenance projects within 90 days at the request of local governments to prevent the loss or impairment of life, health, property or essential public services. Fong said this bill came straight from local fire agencies who have seen first hand the detrimental effects that unmaintained brush, or fuel, on the road side can have. AB 295 will prevent disastrous wildfires from starting along the state’s highways by helping prioritize CalTrans’ efforts to implement defensible space maintenance projects.

“We need to find a way to fast track the clearing of fuels along with the highways,” Fong said. “[This bill] would prioritize Caltrans’ efforts to implement defensible space projects by responding to local requests along highways.”

In a similar vein, AB 297 further accelerates wildfire prevention projects by advancing California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, (CalFIRE)  payments to organizations and fire departments responsible for removing overgrown brush. This bill will help the state meet its goal of treating 500,000 acres of forest annually.

The pre-authorization is currently set to expire in 2024, but this bill will extend that date to 2034. The authorization from this bill allows CalFIRE to pre-authorize funds that are sometimes necessary to keep up with maintenance of brush and other fuel. In support of Assemblyman Fong’s efforts, George Gentry of the California Forestry Association said he applauds the Assembly’s passage of the two bills in a press release.

“[AB 295 and 297] will help expedite crucial wildfire prevention projects in fire prone communities and along state highways,” Gentry said in the release. “Calforests members are especially appreciative of Assemblymember Fong’s continued leadership on wildfire prevention and thank him for his work on these practical and common sense measures that will facilitate much needed projects for California.”

Additionally, president and chief executive officer of the Rural County Representatives of California Patrick Blacklock said in a press release that Fong’s efforts are simple but important.

“AB 297 ensures communities can continue to jumpstart local fire prevention projects to safeguard residents from the impacts of wildfires,” Blacklock said. “The bill is a simple but vital component for wildfire mitigation in our most vulnerable areas.”

Wildfire legislation and the insurance market

Due mostly to California’s extreme wildfires, four insurance companies have pulled out of issuing new home policies. Most recently effective May 27, StateFarm joined Allstate, AIG and CHUBB in California. According to a business update from StateFarm, they have ceased accepting new applications including all business and personal lines property and casualty insurance, effective May 27, 2023.

“This decision does not impact personal auto insurance. State Farm General Insurance Company made this decision due to historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market,” the release stated.

Fong said one of the critical things they have to do is reduce wildfire risk in order to get the insurance market functioning again because he said currently the insurance market is “not functioning properly.” These two bills are only a small piece of the puzzle. State Farm’s release stated they would be working closely with the California Department of Insurance and they will continue to evaluate their approach based on the changing market conditions.

We take seriously our responsibility to manage risk,” the release continued. “We recognize the Governor’s administration, legislators, and the California Department of Insurance (CDI) for their wildfire loss mitigation efforts. We pledge to work constructively with the CDI and policymakers to help build market capacity in California. However, it’s necessary to take these actions now to improve the company’s financial strength.”

According to Janet Ruiz, director of strategic communications with the non-profit Insurance Information Institute (III), this pause on coverage is not forever. She said insurance companies are protecting their policyholders by implementing this change. However, Ruiz said three are a total of 116 registered admitted insurance companies in California, so even though four have halted, there are still several options for Californians

“It’s important that insurance companies manage their risk, and they do that to protect their policyholders,” Ruiz said. “So we’re seeing companies take different types of actions that work for them and this isn’t a new issue.”

Ruiz added that insurance rates in California are “artificially low” for a state with such dramatic natural disasters which is also putting a strain on insurance companies. She said California is in the bottom third of insurance rates in the country. Not only are there natural disaster issues surrounding the insurance market, but Fong said there is a level of bureaucracy that must be maneuvered in order to get the market back on track because it has currently made it infeasible to operate in the state. 

“We need to get the department insurance functioning again,” Fong said. “We need all these carriers to re-enter the market, not only State Farm, but AllState and a lot of other carriers have expressed tremendous concerns that California, because of the wildfire risk, has made it very difficult to issue more policies.”

Fortunately, despite the issues, Ruiz said California has not had any companies go out of business. They may have to shrink or change policies offered, but at this point businesses have been able to save themselves and their policyholders. Ruiz said III is working with the Department of Insurance as well as the legislature to find ways to update current propositions and come up with answers as to better mitigate wildfires. She said there are several groups who are studying wildfires to bring in scientific backing for future endeavors.

“The mitigation for wildfire is of course, all hands on deck. It’s not just insurers, or the California Department of Insurance, it’s CalFIRE and science based groups at the universities and builders and legislators, so we’re all working together on the wildfire risk and solutions,” Ruiz said. “And in the meantime at this point in time for this year, employers are making sure that they can pay claims.”

In the meantime, Fong said by initiating AB 295 and 297, he is doing what he can to help prevent fires from getting out of hand while also working to bring these insurance companies back to California. Especially after the state received record amounts of rain this year, that only means more growth of brush. So prevention is more important than ever.

“The state is heading into fire season, and my legislative proposals will continue the critical work to reduce fire risks to protect our communities,” Fong said. “These bills will help reduce wildfire hazards and support local fire prevention efforts by streamlining permits to fast track forest management projects.”

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