Journey's End on Fire

We Came, We Planned, We Were Wrong

Pete Parkinson, retired planning director for Sonoma County, just issued a sobering mea culpa ten months after the devastating Northbay wildfires.

He lost his own home, as did others in his family, so we can understand why it took him so long to speak up. Now that he has, our current planners and electeds need to listen to his message.

We Came, We Planned, We Were Wrong
Pete Parkinson, AICP
NORTHERN NEWS — American Planning Association
A Publication of the Northern Section of the California Chapter of APA

You are all too familiar with the headline by now: California Is Burning.

Last fall, more than 6,000 homes were destroyed in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties (including my own home near Santa Rosa). Homes went up in flames in rural, suburban, and urban settings, including 3,000 homes lost within the city limits of Santa Rosa. CalFire had designated some of those areas as very-high wildfire hazard; others (including my neighborhood) were considered “only” moderate wildfire hazard. Still other areas — like the suburban Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa where over 1,300 homes were lost — were not considered wildfire hazards at all.

This year has brought no relief. As I write (in mid-August), we’ve seen new wildfires sweep into the city of Redding and threaten Yosemite National Park. The Mendocino Complex, the largest wildfire in California history (eclipsing a record set only a few months ago in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties) continues to burn 45 miles north of Santa Rosa.

Wildfire hazards have been a consistent theme in my career as a planner and planning director in three northern California counties (Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz). I have overseen the preparation of General Plan Safety Elements, Local Hazard Mitigation Plans, and regulatory codes that addressed the full range of hazard management strategies, including road access, water supply, defensible space, and structural design. The underlying theme of these efforts was a belief that wildfire risks can be managed to an acceptable level of public safety, if not eliminated altogether.

In fact, I cannot recall any development project that was denied, or where the density was substantially reduced, because of known wildfire hazards.

We need to rethink our approach to development in fire-prone areas and wildfire hazard mitigation. The firestorm that swept into our Santa Rosa community last October has fundamentally changed my thinking about development in California’s fire-prone landscapes. Now, 10 months post-catastrophe, let me offer a few lessons learned from one planner’s perspective.

Since the state’s “Fire-Safe” standards were adopted in the early 1990s, communities and developers have relied on standards focused on adequate water supply for fire-fighting, adequate road access (getting firefighters in and residents out), and structural protection measures like interior fire sprinklers and the “hardened” structures prescribed under the 2008 Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) building standards. Even today, developers propose increasing residential density in fire-prone areas by relying on evacuation plans and “shelter in place” strategies to protect new residents. While these measures will no doubt provide some measure of increased safety, they are not enough, in my view, to offset the risks.

Here are four specific points based on my experience in Sonoma County during the fires: