A proposed new state law to require local fire districts be notified by electrical utility companies about any fire safety-related activities in areas with high fire risk was introduced last week by Tri-Valley state legislators in coordination with local fire officials.
AB 529 would mandate that local fire districts be "alerted of any fire safety, prevention, or mitigation services conducted by electrical utility companies like PG&E, in high fire-risk areas," according to a Feb. 10 statement issued by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda).
"We hope that this bill will be another tool in their arsenal to fight potentially deadly fires," Bauer-Kahan said. "Due to climate change, California's fire season has been longer and more intense in recent years. With proper notification, we can shave off precious time for fire response."
Bauer-Kahan brought forward AB 529, along with State Senator Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), Moraga-Orinda Fire District Chief Dave Winnacker and San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) Chief Paige Meyer.
"The road to recovery from last year's fire season will be long and difficult, but part of this recovery is making sure we give enhanced tools and resources to our local fire districts," Glazer said.
One "essential element" of AB 529 is that a utility is not prevented from doing emergency maintenance work at any point. In case of an emergency, the utility would be required to report the work within 72 hours of completion and if any incidents occurred as a result.
The bill is based on existing local ordinances in Assembly District 16 -- which includes the San Ramon Valley and Lamorinda -- that "set notification requirements for electrical utilities in order to ensure clear communication, so that a local fire district is prepared and on alert when the chance of a fire is increased in high fire-risk areas."
Last year was California's worst fire season in modern history, according to Bauer-Kahan, with more than 10,000 wildfires burning over 4.2 million acres of land throughout the state by the end of 2020. More than 4% of all land in California was scorched by wildfires, and 33 people lost their lives.
The "August Complex Fires" last summer was also the first "gigafire" in the state, and burned more than 1 million acres in seven counties.
AB 529 aims to ensure that such another wildfire doesn't happen again, and prevent "further destruction of property or loss of life, by ensuring that local fire districts are prepared and ready to respond if a fire is inadvertently started due to maintenance work."
Mayer called the bill "a big step in the right direction," and said "the enhanced level of communication between the big utilities and local fire agencies makes a difference in keeping communities safe throughout the state.
"Advance notice of when, where and what PG&E will be doing in high fire risk areas allows fire agencies the opportunity to assess the area in advance, pre-position assets if warranted, and provide feedback to PG&E in advance about local conditions," Meyer said.
Winnacker said his district is following SRVFPD's lead "in promoting better communication and cooperation between PG&E and local fire agencies," adding the introduced bill "goes a long way towards accomplishing this goal and will protect our communities statewide."