Press Releases

Senator Feinstein Chairs Field Hearing on California Wildfires, Calls on All Levels of Government to Become Better Prepared

-San Diego hearing held to gather facts to improve fire safety, firefighting, disaster aid-

San Diego – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today chaired a field hearing here of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, to investigate the recent devastating wildfires that struck Southern California.

At the hearing, Senator Feinstein called for officials at all levels of government to become better prepared for future catastrophic wildfires. The hearing included testimony from federal, state, and local officials on fire-prevention efforts, firefighting response, and relief and recovery efforts.

The following is Senator Feinstein’s opening statement, delivered at San Diego City Hall:

“By any measure, the wildfires that struck Southern California last month were a disaster of monumental proportions.  Over this past weekend, we saw even more fire.  This time it was the Corral Canyon Fire in Malibu.  That fire started early Saturday morning, and has burned nearly 5,000 acres.  It has destroyed 53 homes and damaged another 34.  Cal Fire has had to deploy 1,156 firefighting personnel, 163 fire engines and one helicopter.

As a matter of fact, I was talking to a friend who was in Mendocino over the Thanksgiving holiday, and he said a member of his family during the holiday lunch was a volunteer for the Mendocino Fire Department, who got a call and left immediately to come down here.

So you might say, in terms of mutual aid, the Malibu fire has affected the entire state.  Luckily, no one has been killed as a result of the fire, but eight firefighters have been injured so far.

Unfortunately, what happened in October -- and what’s happening in Malibu right now – are not the first time California and its people have been subjected to these kinds of fire catastrophes.  Nor, I believe, will they be the last. 

Ours is a tinder-dry state, made all the worse through sustained drought and the very real effects of global warming and climate change.  We are seeing fires that burn hotter, longer, and with greater ferocity.

And so, as we look back on the recent fires, and as we work to analyze what went right and what went wrong, it’s not good enough to simply say, ‘Well, thank goodness that’s over.’

We need to be ready for the next round.  We need to be better prepared.  We need to honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses at all levels of government.  And we need to begin to take action.

At the federal level, I have introduced a series of four bills.  I want to briefly mention them.

The first is a model ordinance, called the Fire Safe Community Act.  This would bring together authorities to create what would be a model ordinance.  Now, local jurisdictions have complete control over planning and zoning and the enactment of these kinds of ordinances. 

We would also have a $25 million grant program to help communities implement a model ordinance if they chose to.  We would authorize $15 million annually for grants to states, on a 50-50 cost share basis, to create or update fire hazard maps.

And communities adopting model ordinances would be eligible for up to 90 percent reimbursement of firefighting costs. That’s up from what is 75 percent today.

And this bill would authorize the Forest Service to administer $35 million in grants to communities for fire-safe practices, and the Interior Department would administer $15 million of such grants.

The second bill is the Mortgage and Rental Disaster Relief Act. This would make mortgage and rental assistance available to qualified individuals.  Assistance would be administered by FEMA, available for up to 18 months in communities designated by the President as disaster areas.

 It would establish certain qualifications:  Victims would have to show they’ve suffered significant financial hardship, and we would set income limits to ensure aid goes to the most in need.

 The limit we have put on this is $100,000 gross income, but that could be changed. These are, in effect, bills in progress. 

Third, the Disaster Rebuilding Assistance Act would provide assistance to disaster victims whose insurance policies do not provide enough money to cover rebuilding costs.

California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who will be testifying today, estimates that as many as 25 percent of California’s wildfire victims may in fact be under-insured.  And so a key component of this bill would be to boost the limit that FEMA now provides -- which is $28,000 -- to $50,000. 

And the final one is a companion to Representative Mary Bono’s bill in the House of Representatives, which would require states to create statewide registries of arsonists.  There is currently no statewide registry for people who commit these kinds of terrible arson fires.  This sets up a protocol to do that. 

Now, we have put money in the Interior budget wherever we possibly could for firefighting.  As long as I’m Chairman of this Subcommittee, I will continue to do that.  And now with Senator Allard’s help, because he comes from a fire-prone state, I would estimate that we will continue our work along this line. 

I want to just make a comment about San Diego, and then turn to Senator Allard, if I might.  San Diego is a great county, and it continues to grow.  But it lags the rest of the state in funding its fire services.

The city of San Diego’s fire department has roughly 35 percent fewer fire fighters per thousand residents than average for large cities in the United States.  And of the seven largest counties in California, San Diego County is the only one without a unified, countywide fire department. 

I’m sorry to say, but I believe the city has under-funded its fire services for years, and we will hear more about that in this hearing.

The national standard is for a fire department to arrive at 90 percent of its emergency calls within five minutes.  San Diego’s department meets this standard 47 percent of the time.  The national standard for staffing is one firefighter per 1,000 residents.  San Diego has 0.69 firefighters per 1,000 residents – or, one firefighter per 1,469 residents.

 By comparison, San Francisco has one firefighter per 421 residents; Phoenix has one firefighter per 997 residents; and the city of Los Angeles has one firefighter per 1,126 residents.  According to the accrediting agency, San Diego needs 22 new fire stations and as many as 800 more firefighters.

In this climate, again, of increasing wildfire, of expanding home subdivisions into patterns of Santa Ana winds and wildfire patterns, I think this deserves further attention. 

And I say this not as someone that’s a United States Senator talking down to anybody. I’ve been a mayor for nine years and a county supervisor for nine years, and I put all my eggs in the basket of local government.  I think that’s where people want their government, and that’s where they want government to respond to keep people safe.  And the two departments that are always the most critical are the fire services and the police services of any city or any county. 

I’d like now to turn to Senator Allard for any opening comments he’d like to make, and then I’ll introduce the witnesses.”