Law students’ research helps shape California wildfires bill

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Image: Stuart Palley/U.S. Forest Service

By: Daniel Melling UC Los Angeles | June 3, 2021

ith the effects of climate change increasing across California, state legislators are exploring new policies to better protect communities – and UCLA law students in the California Environmental Legislation and Policy Clinic are helping.

Last fall, six students in the clinic worked alongside legislators and their staff to research laws and programs to help the state adapt to climate change, focusing on the risks posed by wildfires and sea-level rise. Legislation informed by the students’ research is now under consideration by California lawmakers.

“The students took knowledge from individual wildfire experts and aggregated it in a way that hadn’t been done before, resulting in new recommendations for state policy,” said Julia Stein, supervising attorney for the clinic. The policy clinic complements the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, in which students work on behalf of environmental and community groups on litigation and regulatory matters. Both clinics are part of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, one of the country’s leading environmental law programs.

Students investigating wildfire policies interviewed leading Southern California experts and officials, including local fire chiefs; officials from CalFire, the state fire department, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a local agency focused on open space preservation; and experts who had analyzed the Thomas Fire, a 2017 wildfire across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties that led to the loss of two lives and caused $2.2 billion in damages. 

In developing their policy recommendations, the students considered the conflicting viewpoints of stakeholders involved in wildfire policy, such as whether to spend wildfire prevention funds on firefighting equipment or community education and brush clearance near homes, or how to make prescribed burns a part of wildfire prevention programs.

“We spoke with a variety of experts from many different fields, and many of them had opposing views on what effective wildfire management should entail,” said Shawna Strecker, a second-year law student in the clinic. “These contradictions highlighted the importance of gathering information from a wide variety of sources with different perspectives, values, and priorities when developing effective policy.”

Strecker, along with fellow second-year student Leeza Arbatman and third-year student Michael Cohen contributed to research that helped shape the text of Senate Bill 63, introduced by Sen. Henry Stern. This bill is intended to help local communities strengthen wildfire prevention efforts and also provide state funding to diminish the damage caused by fires.

And a bill introduced by Sen. Ben Allen proposes a loan program to purchase and rent coastal properties vulnerable to sea-level rise. Third-year student Andrew Klimaszewski and second-year students Andrew Lux and Michael Burnett provided supporting analysis for this proposal, which was featured in a recent NPRreport.

Both Allen and Stern virtually visited the clinic, along with other expert speakers who provided insight into the legislative process.

“The upside of the remote clinic was that the students were able to interact with high-level state legislators, officials, and experts over Zoom,” Stein said.

The historic wildfires across California last year made the research project feel more urgent, Arbatman said.

“It was surreal to be doing research or meeting with my team members while the sky outside was dark orange and the air filled with smoke,” Arbatman said. “Tackling this project during such a bad fire season really brought a sense of purpose to our work.”

The students’ efforts to integrate a variety of ideas proved essential to developing their proposals.

After weeks of research, the students presented their work to legislative staff at the end of the semester, detailing their proposal for a pilot program on local-level wildfire prevention — including brush buffer zones, home protection and neighborhood coordination.

“We thought it would be difficult to contribute in an area that has received so much expert attention. This assumption proved untrue,” Cohen said. “By bringing together ideas from different fields, exploring initiatives in other states, and prioritizing community-based programs, we were able to reimagine how resources might be allocated to prevent wildfire in Southern California.”

For the students involved, the course provided critical training for careers in law.

“Through the clinic, I had to identify a problem, conduct extensive research about why it exists, and write a well-reasoned and structured proposal about how to fix it,” Arbatman said. “This is what I’ll often be asked to do as a lawyer. At the end of the day, lawyers are problem solvers, and the clinic allowed me to wrestle with one very complicated problem.”