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Wildfire Commission Chair Discusses Challenges of Combating Destructive Fires

By Media Office Staff

California’s efforts to combat the threat of destructive fires needs to focus on more prevention efforts, according to the chair of a state commission formed to look at the issue.

“When we think about how we deal with wildfires, it has to be on the prevention side,” said Carla Peterman, who was chair of the Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery. “Because once a fire gets ignited, there is so much property, there is so much human life in its path that it ends up being very destructive.”

Peterman, a former commissioner at the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the California Public Utilities Commission, spoke about the issues and challenges confronting California’s wildfire efforts during an Aug. 29 talk at the CEC.

The five-member wildfire commission was established within the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research as a result of last year’s Senate Bill 901. It requires that the commission hold public meetings with the purpose of evaluating the short- and long-term costs of catastrophic wildfire to the state, and prepare a report including recommendations for changes to the law that would address these costs and ensure equitable distribution among affected parties.

The current insurance and regulatory system in California is insufficient to deal with the pace and scale of recent wildfires, Peterman said.

“We don’t know if 2017 to 2018 were one in 20 year events, or one in 250 year events,” she said. “That distribution of risk makes it really hard for our typical risk management products like insurance to be priced and to be offered.”

During the public outreach process, the wildfire commission held meetings across California to gather input from stakeholders on subjects such as building standards and socializing costs of wildfires in fire-prone areas.

The commission submitted its final report on future fire risks, liability, and rebuilding issues in June 2019. The recommendations centered on fire insurance liability issues and wildfire prevention efforts by utilities operating in at-risk communities.

Peterman said the key finding from the report is the understanding that California will need to invest heavily in wildfire prevention and minimize risk of property damage before insurers can begin to offer products to residents living in areas which are currently at high risk of wildfire.

“The community that deals with risk finds this an unacceptable risk to touch, and they don’t have to do anything about it,” she said. “But those of us who work in government, those of us who work at utilities, we can’t afford to say we’re not going to deal with this anymore. And so what we learned was if we can get our risk of wildfires, not to zero, but more understood and lower, then there are financial mechanisms that will start to be provided.”

Peterman, who consults on energy and utility issues, is scheduled to join Southern California Edison as its senior vice president of regulatory affairs on Oct. 1.

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