A quartet of Southern California lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday in Congress to support the development of firefighting tech to help in the early detection of wildfires, according to a statement from Rep. Mike Garcia’s office.
The introduction of the legislation comes as the state’s fire marshal is taking heat for how it’s conducting its periodic review of California’s Fire Hazard Severity Zones, which includes several areas in the Santa Clarita Valley.
While unrelated, both moves look to address the risks from severe wildfires, which are an annual concern for the region during fire season (from June until about November) and in areas where homes are abutted by nature, a not uncommon occurrence in the areas throughout Santa Clarita due to the green belt that surrounds the city.
In 2020, the state had its worst wildfire season on record, including four of the seven largest in the state’s history, which saw more than 4 million acres burned.
The FIRE Act of 2023, which stands for Fire Information and Reaction Enhancement, would enable the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study means of improving “the prediction of wildfire intensification, the forecast of smoke dispersion, information dissemination and risk communication, and early detection of wildfires,” according to a statement from Garcia, R-Santa Clarita.
He’s introducing the bill along with: Young Kim, an Orange County Republican; Julia Brownley, a Democrat from Ventura County who represents areas west of the SCV; and Judy Chu, a Democrat who represents Pasadena and a large swath of the Angeles National Forest.
“The FIRE Act is a critical piece of bipartisan legislation that will provide California with much-needed wildfire prevention tools. With better tools to detect, predict and react to wildfires, firefighters, land managers and emergency managers can make more informed decisions to mitigate the loss of property and life,” said Garcia in a news release. “I am proud to have been joined by Congresswomen Kim, Brownley and Chu in introducing this legislation, and I look forward to teaming up on a bipartisan basis to ensure this bill passes through Congress and is signed into law.”
The four-page bill calls for an appropriation of $15 million for the 2024-25 fiscal year in order to carry out a program “to develop and extend accurate wildfire forecasts and warnings in order to reduce loss of life, injury, property and damage to the economy.”
Fire Hazard Severity Zones
The state fire marshal’s effort is part of a separate “periodic review” of local, state and federal responsibility areas for California’s Fire Hazard Severity Zones map that’s currently underway, according to Brad Weisshaupt, L.A. County Fire Department forestry prefire engineer.
The last update of the map was initiated in 2007, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal’s website. As the agency contracted by CalFire for the county’s unincorporated areas, the county was hosting the hearings for the SCV.
The maps classify a wildland zone as moderate, high or very high fire hazard based on the average hazard across the area included in the zone.
In a website explaining the process, fire officials note there is a difference between a fire “risk” and a “hazard.”
Hazard is based on the physical condition that creates a likelihood and expected fire behavior of a 30- to 50-year period without considering short-term modifications, such as fuel-reduction efforts, according to the fire marshal’s office. While “risk” is the potential damage a fire can do to the area under existing conditions, including any modification, such as fuel-reduction projects, defensible space and ignition-resistant building construction.
Scott Witt, deputy chief with CalFire’s Prefire Planning Division of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, likened the situation of risk and hazard to someone who was living in a tropical island: That person might not be able to lessen the hazard of a tropical storm happening, which was what the map looked at, but they could take a number of protective measures to mitigate their risk of losing property when such a tropical storm occurs, such as building with concrete, avoiding a structure with large glass windows, etc.
“While most of California is subject to some degree of fire hazard, there are specific features that make some areas more hazardous than others,” according to Brian Barkley, a battalion chief with CalFire’s Land Use Planning Program, who notes the process is part of a law that requires the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to designate fire-hazard areas based on fuel, terrain, weather and other relevant factors.
The hazard designations look at two key elements: the probability of an area burning and expected fire behavior. This means the risk looks at how often an area will burn, and when it does, what characteristics will lead to buildings being ignited. These factors are considered into a score that looks at an area’s fire history, vegetation, predicted flame length, ember production, climate and topography.
For practical purposes, anyone living within an area deemed part of the Fire Hazard Severity Zones map who’s looking to sell their property is required to have documented compliance with a Defensible Space Inspection, as a result of Assembly Bill 38.
The state recently extended the end of the comment period from Feb. 3 to April 4 after its initial round of community meetings, after complaints about the process lacking transparency and being poorly timed.
Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, was one of a number of public officials who spoke out to have the comment period extended, with Kris Hough, his 21st District representative, sharing the following comments during a public hearing on the matter:
“The new maps will propose various lands in Southern California as very high fire hazard zones, despite the years of planning, management and mitigation of wildfires that have been done,” Wilk said in his statement. “My constituents are no strangers to wildfires and certainly want to be aware of the potential hazards around them, but it is important for CalFire to be transparent about the process of determining the final versions of these maps.”
Witt said CalFire solicited feedback from a number of partner agencies, such as L.A. County Fire, in determining its proposed maps, but also that feedback from the public would be taken into consideration.
“I genuinely believe and know we’re going to be evaluating all comments,” Witt said, “and there could be comments that show there is another change or look that’s needed in another area.”
For information on how to comment on the Fire Hazard Severity Zones Map, call 916-633-7655 or email [email protected] by April 3.