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State Sen. Bill Dodd says California is better able to handle wildfires in a climate change world since the blazes that engulfed much of Napa County in October, 2017.
“We weren’t really prepared as individuals, as families, as businesses, as educational institutions, as cities, as counties, as the state or the federal governments for these types of climatic fires,” said Dodd, D-Napa, on Monday.
Dodd didn’t blame anybody. Rather, he said, evidence had yet to mount for the heightened level of awareness needed under a new reality with fires of greater magnitude and resiliency.
“We’re not done,” he said. “Climate change is here. We have more fuels in our forests, more fuels on our private lands, public lands.”
Dodd answered questions about wildfires on the second anniversary of the Napa County fires, as well as about housing and other topics. The Napa native sat in his local office in Napa County’s South Campus in Napa Valley Commons.
Dodd himself has changed the way he thinks about fire danger. In the hours before the Atlas, Tubbs and Partrick fires ignited on Oct. 8, 2017, he took note of the strong wind. His mind went back to being 9 years old in October 1965 and his family evacuating their home at 2 a.m. because of a huge Mount George fire.
“But I immediately went away from that,” Dodd said. “I went away from that because – I don’t know why.”
Residents since the October 2017 fires are more acutely aware of the need for wildfire preparedness. Even those who didn’t experiences losses or evacuations dealt with the closed schools and businesses and the smoke, he said.
California since 2017 has procured a new 911 system that will be more resilient when operational. It is seeing a move toward having backup power systems for cell tower sites. It has budgets for more trucks and fire personnel. It has improved its mutual aid system, Dodd said.
“We didn’t get a lot of mutual aid into Napa County, to the extent we needed it, for two or three days,” Dodd said. “Today, that would be different.”
Reimbursement rates for mutual aid will be better. So will plans to back up communities that might otherwise be reluctant to dispatch trucks to Napa County at a time they also face windy conditions, he said.
“There’s more communication between state and county and city and special district fire units in coordination today because of these fires than there’s ever been,” Dodd said.
Counties, cities and schools have adopted better strategies to deal with wildfires, Dodd said. He mentioned the Napa County Sheriff’s move to equip its vehicles with distinctive high-low sirens like those in Europe that can sound an alarm during emergencies.
Since the fires, Dodd has introduced 14 wildfire safety bills. Among them are laws establishing a statewide network of wildfire monitoring devices and creating new oversight rules for vegetation management around power lines.
Another difference is the introduction by PG&E of public safety power shutoffs during high fire danger weather so downed lines don’t spark fires. Cal Fire blamed the Atlas and Partrick fires on trees falling into PG&E lines.
Calistoga experienced such a power shutoff in late 2018 and the Lake Berryessa area on June 7. Much of Napa County was warned of shutoffs on Sept. 23 that didn’t materialize. PG&E blacked out more than 30,000 customers in Napa County this past week.
Does Napa County for years to come face a relentless tattoo of power shutoff warnings- and perhaps actual shutoffs—each summer and fall, every time the weather grows hot, humidity low and winds strong?
Dodd’s expectation is PG&E will improve its grid to the point that power shutoffs aren’t used as often. San Diego Gas & Electric started doing such power shutoffs after fires in 2007. That utility’s shutoffs have grown less frequent, he said.
Another challenge facing Napa County is housing. The average local home price is $635,000. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the average home price in 1997 was $198,000, or $352,000 in today’s dollars.
Dodd said the law of supply and demand applies to having affordable, market-rate homes built by the private sector. The way to change the present dynamic is to increase the amount of housing.
“I know there are a lot of people in Napa who think that’s not a great idea,” Dodd said. “But if you’re interested in the next generation of kids in Napa being able to buy a home here – or even this one – that’s the only way out ... to create more housing so there’s more supply.”
California wants to make surplus state land available for private sector housing projects. One possible, local site is the lower, flat 20 acres of 850-acre Skyline Wilderness Park east of the city of Napa.
The move has caused controversy. Skyline Park advocates object to losing a part of the park used for a horse arena and special events. Napa County leases the state land and allows a local nonprofit group to run the park.
“I think the governor is intent on using all state property that is appropriate for housing as soon as possible,” Dodd said. “That said, I believe the county has been forthright and reasonable player in housing with the state over the last few years. I believe there’s room for dialogue.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill by Dodd that allows the state and county to negotiate for the county to buy Skyline Park. That raises the question of whether the state will demand the 20-acre housing carve-out in return for a sale.
Dodd noted that the county is leasing the Skyline park land – all 850 acres—from the state and that the lease lasts through 2030. So, he said, he doubts there’s anything the state can do about putting housing on the 20 acres at this point without coming to the county.
Dodd is running in 2020 for a second four-year term in the state Senate. He said he is not aware of any opponent.