California Laws Related to Wildfires

Posted on September 8, 2021

Wildfires consume thousands of acres of property in California each year. According to data from CAL FIRE, in 2020 alone, California had 8,112 recorded fires and suffered damage to 1,443,152 acres of land. In an effort to reduce the risk of wildfires and decrease the spread of fire damage, state lawmakers have passed numerous laws that homeowners, businesses, insurance companies, utility companies and others must obey. Learn about California’s laws related to wildfires and how they might impact you. If you have additional questions after reading this guide, speak with a knowledgeable California wildfire attorney.

Homeowner Responsibilities

California residents who live in a State Responsibility Area are legally obligated to ensure that their properties comply with structure and fire codes to help minimize the damage in the event of a fire. California Government Code Section 51182 requires property owners and leasers to maintain a defensible space of 100 feet from all sides of a structure if it is located on or near land that is covered with flammable material and in a very high fire hazard severity zone. 

A defensible space implements practices to defend the structure from an approaching wildfire or minimize the spread of a structural fire to surrounding forests or brush. These practices include clearing flammable materials, such as brush and vegetation, to create a buffer. The law also requires all new homes to be constructed using fire-resistant materials. 

Beginning July 1, 2021, California Assembly Bill 38 also requires all home sales in High and Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones to comply with Defensible Space Inspections. Anyone selling a home in these regions must have documentation of a compliant inspection. If you’re not sure what zone you live in, locate your address on the fire zone map provided by CAL FIRE

Evacuation Laws

California Penal Code Section 409.5 states that if a calamity such as a wildfire creates a menace to public health or safety, several types of officers and employees performing their official duties may close off the area where the hazard exists. Closing off an area means giving notice to anyone in the area to leave or evacuate, then barring it from the public by means of ropes, markers or guards. If an unauthorized person willfully and knowingly enters a closed area under these circumstances, it is a misdemeanor.

Emergency Water Shortage Declarations

In 2019, the governor approved Assembly Bill 1432, which gives a public water supplier the right to declare a water shortage in an emergency such as a wildfire without a public hearing. This law allows water suppliers to go around the previous requirement, which was not always possible or practicable in emergency conditions. If an emergency is declared by a water supplier, California citizens must take steps to conserve water and reduce their consumption.

Wildfire Damage Insurance Laws

Wildfires cause millions of dollars in property damage to Californians each year. Most home and property owners have wildfire insurance to pay for the costs of rebuilding or replacing damaged property. Unfortunately, policyholders often encounter problems in obtaining fair and full financial compensation from insurance providers after fires and disasters. Recently, however, laws have been passed that require insurance companies to pay fairer amounts in property damage coverage.

On January 1, 2020, California Assembly Bill 188 went into effect. This law changed the way that fire insurance companies must measure the value of a total or partial property loss claim. Prior to AB 188, homeowners with fire damage were paid the actual cash values of their homes (the current market value before the fire) in the event of a total loss. After AB 188, however, insurance companies must pay homeowners the actual cost to repair, rebuild or replace the property when there is a total or partial loss. This law helps homeowners receive the money that they need to rebuild or replace a home damaged by a wildfire in California.

Wildfire Liability Laws

Liability refers to legal and financial responsibility for something, such as the injuries and property damage related to a preventable accident or disaster. Although some wildfires arise from natural causes, many trace back to human error and negligence. For example, investigations often find that utility companies are responsible for California wildfires, such as an electric company for failing to ensure the safety of its powerlines.

If a person or entity is responsible for causing a wildfire, that party may be liable for related property damage. Injured or affected victims can file wildfire claims against the at-fault party or parties in pursuit of financial compensation for their losses. These lawsuits are often based on the legal doctrine of negligence, which claims that the defendant acted unreasonably and that this is what caused the fire damage in question. 

It may also be possible, however, to base a wildfire claim on the doctrine of strict liability if a government agency or utility company caused the fire. Strict liability means that the defendant(s) will be responsible for fire damage even if the entity was not careless, negligent or at fault. The strict liability doctrine could apply under the rule of inverse condemnation.

Inverse Condemnation

Inverse condemnation is a law that allows a property owner to go up against the government or a public agency – including a utility company – in pursuit of fair compensation for damage to or a reduction in the value of a property. If a government agency used the right of eminent domain to acquire or use private property for public improvement or economic development, and the property sustained damage as a result, the owner could be eligible for financial compensation without proof of fault.

For example, if a wildfire was caused by a powerline that ran through an individual’s private property, that individual would have grounds to file an inverse condemnation claim against the electric company for property damage without having to prove that the electric company was negligent or at fault for the fire. The rule of inverse condemnation would make the individual eligible for fair compensation even if the wildfire was not foreseeable and in the absence of fault.

For more information about California laws related to wildfires and your rights as a wildfire victim, contact an attorney at Panish Shea & Boyle LLP. We offer free case evaluations.

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