College - Author 1
College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences
Department - Author 1
Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department
College - Author 2
College of Architecture and Environmental Design
Department - Author 2
City and Regional Planning Department
Wildfire poses an existential threat for California. Five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history occurred in 2020 and 2021 including the first fire to ever impact over 1 million acres. Between 2014-2018, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) identified electrical power generation as igniting more fires than lightning strikes. In response to electrical utility assets igniting wildfires, the State of California has mandated that investor-owned utilities (IOU) develop Wildfire Mitigation Plans (WMP) that include a spectrum of mitigation and prevention efforts including undergrounding of utilities, hardening of electrical assets (e.g., converting wooden poles to steel or other non-flammable materials) and vegetation management.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) provides mechanisms for accelerating regulatory approval in implementation of critical emergency prevention in response to wildfires. Relying on regulatory texts, legislative history and case law, this report reviews the creation and use of the CEQA statutory emergency exemption and several categorical exemptions (existing facilities, replacement and reconstruction, and minor alterations to land use). This report concludes that, depending on the nature and location of the wildfire risk mitigation, all of these exemptions are available to accelerate WMP prevention and mitigation work and should be employed by agencies with jurisdiction to ensure that existing risks posed by utility hardware and lines are promptly addressed to avoid loss or damage from IOU-ignited wildfires. This report further concludes that it would be advisable for the legislature to adopt a new specific CEQA statutory exemption to ensure rapid implementation of existing WMPs where there are identified known IOU ignition risks.
February 1, 2023.