The need for decisive action to fight California’s wildfires has never been clearer. The eerie, red-orange glow of California’s skies and the 4.2 million acres burned in 2020 have made the consequences of climate change impossible to overlook.
The state must determine what mitigation, prevention, and safety measures it can require of those who play a role in wildfires and how it can regulate their relationships accordingly. Assembly Bill 1054 (AB-1054) is one attempt to redistribute the burden of wildfires throughout the state.
In brief, it reduces the liability shouldered by electric utilities, creates a wildfire liability fund to pay victims’ claims, requires electricity ratepayers statewide to chip in to defray the costs of wildfires, and mandates safety protocols in the electrical grid.
But AB-1054 misses a smaller yet essential piece of this puzzle: Older homes, made out of materials that burn more quickly than kindling, stand in the path of wildfires that electric utilities will inevitably ignite. These homes are likely to be underinsured and completely destroyed in future fires,
resulting in destruction and damages that the new wildfire fund will not be able to bear.
This Note argues that wildfires in California have become uninsurable at the state, industry, and individual levels. In order to live sustainably in the new reality of a year-round wildfire season,
statutory solutions should move beyond shifts in liability. Massive wildfires must be prevented from turning into massive damage claims in the first place. This Note proposes that AB-1054’s utility mitigation requirements be expanded past the electrical grid and into the homes of ratepayers. Utilities should be required to retrofit their lowest-income customers’ homes to fire-hardened standards in high-risk areas. Fire safety measures can determine the fate of neighboring homes—when one is reduced to ashes, others may stand intact.
An equitable investment into effective community-wide wildfire mitigation is essential to decrease the overall costs that the state must balance among individuals, utilities, insurance companies, and the government following a destructive fire. California must ensure that the burdens of climate change do not continue to rest on the individuals who are least able to bear it.
This Note applies lessons from the California earthquake home-retrofitting program and utility energy-efficiency programs to argue that electric utilities are optimally situated to increase safety and security for the most vulnerable while reducing the total damages from wildfires.
This Note unfolds in three Parts. Part I introduces the wildfire crisis in California and explains its main drivers: climate change and development in the Wildland–Urban Interface (WUI). Part I also reviews the consequences of this crisis from the perspective of electric utilities, insurance companies, and wildfire resilience advocates. It concludes with a critique of the legislative effort, AB-1054, through lenses of cost-efficiency and equity. Part II describes the opportunity that AB-1054 misses to overcome the interrelated obstacles to wildfire resilience by considering the challenges of living in the WUI, conceptualized as a tragedy of the commons. To instruct mitigation in the wildfire context, Part II surveys two model environmental initiatives: (1) earthquake retrofitting under the California Brace + Bolt Program (Brace + Bolt) and (2) utility-run energy efficiency programs. Part III presents a utility-run residential fire mitigation program as a statutory solution. This Note concludes that the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC’s) standards support the establishment of a mitigation program despite the risks of moral hazard and barriers to meaningful individual participation.