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How California lawmakers are preparing for more natural disasters

How California lawmakers are preparing for more natural disasters
A house burns on Island View Drive in the central Ventura foothills during the Thomas fire in December. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Dozens of Californians lost their lives in wildfires and other natural disasters in recent months.

In response to the widespread emergencies, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators want to change insurance rules, emergency alert systems and debris removal policies and spend more money on fire protection. If passed, these new laws would add to the many protections already enshrined in state law for those who have experienced natural disasters, including substantial relief from property taxes.

State officials are warning residents should expect more natural disasters due to the effects of climate change.

“Sadly, what these communities and these members’ residents have experienced is now going to be far too common in California,” Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said last week at a news conference surrounded by state lawmakers. “We no longer have a fire season. We have year-round fire season.”

Here are some of the proposals lawmakers are debating.

Shoring up insurance coverage

Eight bills address disaster victims’ relationship with insurance companies. Democratic state Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents communities affected by last fall’s North Bay fires, said more than a hundred constituents have contacted his office with “horror stories.” Residents, he said, are struggling to remember everything they owned before the fire, and in some cases, provide receipts to their insurance companies.

“We’re getting calls from survivors literally experiencing PTSD, people having to relive the most horrific night of their lives and recall and attempt to put a price on their most priceless possessions,” McGuire said. “It’s simply too much to ask.”

McGuire’s legislation, Senate Bill 897, would force insurance companies to accept consumers’ tallies of items lost to natural disasters and pay out no less than 80% of the policy limit even if residents don’t have a full list of what was lost.

If McGuire’s bill passes, it would apply to victims of wildfires late last year.

The rest of the legislation would benefit only those affected by future disasters. Six bills want to address underinsurance and policy cancellations in fire-prone areas. North Bay residents have complained that insurance companies are telling them they don’t have enough coverage to rebuild their homes.

SB 894 from Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) allows residents to combine coverage from their primary homes and other buildings they might have insured to rebuild their main residence.

Assembly Bill 1797 from Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) requires an insurer to provide updated estimates of the full replacement costs of their homes at the time of annual policy renewal. Two other bills from Levine, AB 1800 and AB 1799, ensure that residents can collect the full replacement cost of their home even if they decide to rebuild at another location and would require insurers to provide complete policy documents, instead of just summaries, to residents upon request.

AB 1875 from Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) would mandate that insurance companies make available policies covering no less than 150% of their home replacement costs. A measure from Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), SB 824, would make it harder for insurance companies to cancel or reduce coverage in areas at risk for fires by making the state insurance commissioner sign off on such decisions.

AB 1722 from Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) gives property owners three years to rebuild their home after a natural disaster and still receive the full replacement cost from their insurance company. Currently the deadline is two years, but Aguiar-Curry argues demand for construction after an emergency often outpaces supply.

Sounding a bigger alarm

County officials in Northern California faced widespread criticism when widespread emergency alert systems were not activated at the start of fall’s wildfires. Later on, when fires threatened Southern California, state officials sent warnings to 12 million residents to prepare them.

Two bills, SB 833 from McGuire and SB 821 from Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), would expand the reach of the alert systems. McGuire’s bill gives the state’s Office of Emergency Services more authority to issue alerts while Jackson’s allows the state to assist local governments in developing their own systems.

Higher penalties for those at fault

Investigators have yet to determine causes for last year’s major wildfires in Northern and Southern California.

Lawmakers, however, are pitching bills that would toughen penalties for those found responsible. SB 819 from Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) would prohibit electric utilities from passing along the costs of fines or penalties to ratepayers if those companies were found at fault. SB 901 from Dodd requires electric companies’ wildfire plans to include details about when they should de-energize power lines during high winds or other risky conditions.

More translation services, easier cleanup and lower fees for homeowners

Activists in Ventura County criticized the lack of Spanish translation services in the region’s response to the wildfires. AB 1877 from Assemblywoman Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) requires the state to translate its emergency communications into the language other than English that is most spoken in an affected area. Limón also plans to introduce a bill that would speed up debris removal, according to a spokeswoman.

When rebuilding, homeowners could be subject to a new $75 fee on most real estate transactions to fund low-income housing development. Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) has authored AB 1765 to exempt people affected by natural disasters from paying the fee.

“The role of government is to assist in aiding Californians in recovering from such tragedies, not profit from them,” Quirk-Silva said in a release.

An infusion of new money into the budget

Brown has proposed lots of new spending in his 2018-19 state budget to fight fires. His plan would allocate $2.27 billion to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — $1.3 billion more than in the budget four years ago.

This year’s plan includes nearly $100 million for four new firefighting helicopters, continuing the replacement of the department’s current Vietnam War-era fleet.

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