“In the Walbridge fire, engines were unable to access Mill Creek Road due to its narrow width, with almost complete devastation of homes.”
DEBORAH A. EPPSTEIN
DEBORAH A. EPPSTEIN IS A SCIENTIST AND RETIRED BIOTECH ENTREPRENEUR.
October 25, 2020,
Smelling smoke on Sept. 27, residents of Cougar Lane went to the top of the road at dusk and viewed fire blowing across the Sonoma Valley, fueled by strong winds. Initially, the 911 operator said they weren’t aware of any fire in Sonoma County. Nixle broadcast an evacuation order shortly thereafter, and soon fire raged on both sides of Los Alamos Road, the sole evacuation route.
Sonoma County promotes itself as a bucolic county of vineyards and wineries, ignoring that it is one of the most fire-prone counties in California. Land encompassed in viticulture is dwarfed by land consumed by wildfires. In the past three years alone, Sonoma County has lost 23 lives and 6,000 homes, with more than 230,000 acres scorched — a staggering 20% of the county.
After the devastating Tubbs and Nuns fires of 2017, county government should have strived for stricter rules on development in these fire-prone areas. Sadly, quite the contrary occurred. The county continues to promote development in fire-prone areas on unsafe, single-lane or long dead-end roads.
Although residents enumerated deficiencies in the county’s fire ordinance that violated Cal Fire’s fire safe regulations for the state responsibility area, county supervisors voted unanimously in December to approve an ordinance that didn’t require concurrent resident evacuation and fire engine access. Fortunately, in May, the state Board of Forestry refused to certify the ordinance, because it exempts almost all roads and didn’t ensure safe concurrent evacuation and fire equipment ingress.
Ignoring this clear directive, the supervisors unanimously revised the fire ordinance in August to include even broader exemptions.
They now exempted all existing roads from state responsibility area standards and once again dismissed objections by concerned residents. While staff argued this approach would provide affordable housing, supervisors admitted that such housing should be developed in cities, not in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface.
They failed to explain why they want to build on long, one-lane dead-end roads in fire-prone areas. Neither the fire marshal nor the supervisors expressed concern for resident and firefighter safety or preservation of homes. They only wanted unrestricted development.
In September, the Board of Forestry again declined to certify the Sonoma County ordinance, once more expressing serious concerns about concurrent evacuation.
They asked how the ordinance met the minimum state responsibility area standards for new development, including a requirement for 20-foot-wide roads (two lanes) and a ban on dead-end roads longer than one mile.
Without certification, the county is legally required to implement the Cal Fire regulations. Yet it refuses to do so. Is the county risking massive liability?
Because the county failed to follow the state responsibility area regulations during the past 29 years, many new homes were built on long narrow, unsafe roads in the wildland-urban interface. The wildfires that have swept Sonoma County have burned many homes and endangered lives when evacuation occurred on unsafe rural roads.
This occurred in our two most recent fires. In the Glass fire, evacuation on narrow and winding Los Alamos Road was treacherous when many fire engines ascended the road. Fire crews understandably would not enter 10-foot-wide Cougar Lane for fear of hindering evacuation. Fortunately, all residents escaped, but Cougar Lane and 16 homes (including ours) were torched.
In the Walbridge fire, engines were unable to access Mill Creek Road due to its narrow width, with almost complete devastation of homes.
Our county needs to stop allowing unsafe development on one-lane or long dead-end roads in fire-prone areas. It must obey state law and should follow the lead of model counties in promoting fire-safe development.
Deborah A. Eppstein is a scientist and retired biotech entrepreneur. She has been working to promote fire-safe roads in Sonoma County for the past two years.