Examining Jerry Brown’s veto of California wildfire legislation and the criticism of it

Crews work a prescribed burn earlier this year in the Tahoe National Forest, making sure hazard trees are cut down. It’s a preventative measure taken to ensure the public’s safety. Ezra David Romero / Capital Public Radio
Crews work a prescribed burn earlier this year in the Tahoe National Forest, making sure hazard trees are cut down. It’s a preventative measure taken to ensure the public’s safety. Ezra David Romero / Capital Public Radio
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration says it has prioritized fire mitigation in California’s forests, including the use of prescribed burns. In this photo, crews work on a prescribed burn in the Tahoe National Forest. Ezra David Romero / Capital Public Radio
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration says it has prioritized fire mitigation in California’s forests, including the use of prescribed burns. In this photo, crews work on a prescribed burn in the Tahoe National Forest. Ezra David Romero / Capital Public Radio

As deadly wildfires burned across California this week, a flurry of social media and blog posts called into question Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of a wildfire management bill two years ago. The posts suggested the legislation could have reduced or even prevented the recent infernos  a contention strongly refuted by the Brown administration.

With so much attention on the fires, we decided to examine these claims, though we did not place any Truth-O-Meter ratings on them.

Here’s what we found:

In September 2016, Brown vetoed Senate Bill 1463, which aimed to reduce the risk of power lines sparking fires in brush-covered and wooded areas, saying in his veto letter that the bill duplicated existing efforts. SB 1463 had been unanimously approved by the state Legislature.

Here’s what the governor said in rejecting the bill:

"This bill requires the Public Utilities Commission to prioritize areas that have increased fire hazard associated with overhead utility facilities. Since May of last year, the Commission and CalFire have been doing just that through the existing proceeding on fire-threat maps and fire-safety regulations. This deliberative process should continue and the issues this bill seeks to address should be raised in that forum."

Many of the posts criticizing Brown circulated an August 2018 blog at Flashreport.org, a conservative-leaning website. Some described it as evidence the governor had neglected to keep the state safe.

The blog describes Brown as "jetting around the world spouting climate change propaganda" as fires burned last year in California. It said his veto was "political."

Had Brown approved the measure, lives could have been saved last year in the Santa Rosa fires, the bill’s author, state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, claimed in an interview this week on the Lars Larson radio show.

"Why the governor vetoed that, I don’t know. CPUC and CalFire have been working on it for eight years, can’t seem to get their act together," Moorlach said. "But if we could have hardened some lines, especially in Santa Rosa last year at this time, we might have prevented the loss of 44 lives."

Moorlach’s spokesman said the state senator was not available on Thursday for an interview.

Brown administration’s response

But instead of speeding up fire prevention, the Brown administration argued Moorlach’s bill would have slowed down existing work. The state utilities commission and CalFire, the state’s forestry and fire prevention agency, had been at work since 2013 mapping areas at risk of fires due to utility equipment.

Asked about the criticism leveled this week at Brown, Evan Westrup, the governor’s spokesman, said it was "absolutely shameful to exploit this tragedy – with fires still burning – to try to score cheap political points."

Westrup added that the Brown administration has taken numerous steps to prevent fires in recent years, citing several efforts here:

-- September 21, 2018: Governor Brown Signs Legislation to Strengthen Wildfire Prevention and Recovery

-- August 7, 2018: CAL FIRE Awards $170 million to Reduce Fire Threat and Improve Forest Health

-- May 10, 2018: Governor Brown Issues Executive Order to Protect Communities from Wildfire, Climate Impacts

-- Oct. 30, 2015: Governor Brown Takes Action to Protect Communities Against Unprecedented Tree Die-Off

Terrie Prosper, a spokesperson for the utilities commission, wrote in an email that the bill "would have prolonged the safety work already going on by requiring the participation of certain entities, which was unnecessary because CAL FIRE was already a party to the proceeding, and local governments and fire departments could also participate."

That process produced a statewide Fire-Threat Map in January, one month after the commission voted to strengthen regulations for utilities that have facilities in areas where thick vegetation and strong winds make fires more dangerous, according to a KQED news article.

‘Shot across the bow’

Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley, reviewed the bill and Brown’s veto message. He said in an email, "I do not think it would have made much of a difference, as the amount of funds was not that great ($582,000 that may have just led to some hiring of consultants and a lot interaction with the communities) and, more importantly, no new advances would have been made."

Stewart, however, went on to describe the legislation as "a good shot across the bow to the (Brown) administration to do more. This area of risk assessment and mitigation has been woefully underfunded for decades."

In the end, we found the recent blog and social media posts glossed over the governor’s reasons for rejecting the bill in question. They dismissed existing efforts to map high-risk fire areas that the Brown administration said would have been slowed down by the bill. Because the bill was vetoed, it’s impossible to know for sure whether it would have sped up or slowed down the process. But, as Stewart said, the bill could have served as a warning to get moving on existing efforts.

Trump to visit California

On Saturday, President Trump is scheduled to visit California "to meet with individuals impacted by the wildfires," said Lindsay Walters, his deputy press secretary.

We’ve fact-checked the president and his recent erroneous claims about the fires.

Earlier this week, we rated False Trump’s recent claim "there is no reason" for California’s deadly fires except for poor forest management. The president ignored other key causes such as urban sprawl and climate change.

In August, we rated False his assertion that firefighters couldn’t access water due to California’s environmental policies. We found the president conflated the state’s real water controversy between farmers and environmentalists with the unrelated issue of firefighting.

The fires in Northern and Southern California which started last week left dozens dead in their wake, prompted the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed thousands of homes.

At least 63 people were killed in and nearby the Northern California town of Paradise, two people were killed by the Southern California fire, and a third death in that fire zone is under investigation as possibly linked to the fire.

Authorities said on Thursday there are 631 people still unaccounted for near the Northern California fire.

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