Republished: Cal Fire must do more to protect rural residents

Cal Fire must do more to protect rural residents

By Deborah A. Eppstein and Craig S. Harrison
Feb. 8, 2019 Updated: Feb. 8, 2019 6:36 p.m.

Just, Equitable, Sustainable Forum

In November, the world watched with horror as residents of Paradise tried to escape from an oncoming wildfire on clogged roads, some so desperate that they abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot. The state can do more to reduce the risk from wildfires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection should enforce its firesafe road regulations to stop new development in fire-prone areas and better enable emergency access and evacuation.

Cal Fire regulations require minimum standards for development in State Responsibility Areas that are accessed by long, narrow and often dead-end roads. Standards include minimum 20-foot-road widths, periodic turnouts, no one-lane roads unless no more than half a mile long and connect with a two-lane road at both ends, and dead-end roads only if 20 feet wide and no more than 1 mile long.

Many rural California homes are surrounded by vegetation and at the end of narrow roads, making them tough to protect against fire. The state has minimum requirements for road widths and turnarounds but doesn’t enforce them, leaving the decision to counties. 

Thirty years ago, in an instance of prescience, the Legislature became concerned about development in
fire-prone locations. It directed the Department of Forestry to issue regulations to require firesafe roads
for development. And it did so in 1991. But where we live, Sonoma County has chosen to exempt from
the state regulations most roads built before 1992. This decision irresponsibly allows new development
in most of rural Sonoma County in remote fire-prone areas. Yet a 1993 opinion by the attorney general
clearly says that state law pertains to all roads, not just those built after 1992.

Sonoma County’s approach may be rare, but Cal Fire should ensure that its firesafe road regulations are
properly applied throughout the state. Our lawyer, Kevin Block, a land use attorney, has informed
Sonoma County that any permits issued in violation of Cal Fire standards are invalid, but what is Cal
Fire doing about this?

Our interest began when Sonoma County started allowing commercial cannabis cultivation in
unsuitable rural areas, impacting residents and attracting growers from Los Angeles, San Francisco and
Sacramento counties, as well as from out of state. But the regulations govern all new development in
State Responsibility Areas, including new homes and wineries.

Counties may have their own standards, but they must be at least as stringent as the Cal Fire rules.
Sonoma County has allowed inappropriate cannabis cultivation projects for two years under its
amnesty (“penalty relief”) program on roads that do not even approach meeting state regulations.
These include at least five dead-end roads over 1 mile long, some of which are under 12 feet wide. How
can a one-lane or dead-end road provide the same degree of emergency access and evacuation as a two lane
road? The October 2017 fires burned through many of these areas and destroyed homes. This is not
a theoretical issue.

PG&E has declared bankruptcy because it may be liable for damages caused by large destructive fires.
But some of the blame also lies with county governments that allow development in remote areas with
inadequate roads. PG&E is obligated to service those areas once a county allows development, but
should the county allow development there at all?

In December, retiring 30-year Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott suggested that California consider going
beyond the firesafe regulations to ban new home construction in all areas prone to fires. Why does Cal
Fire look the other way when some counties exclude most pre-1992 roads from its regulations and issue
development permits on unsafe roads?

Deborah A. Eppstein is a scientist and a retired biotech entrepreneur. Craig S. Harrison is a retired
lawyer. Both live near Santa Rosa in unincorporated Sonoma County.
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