In a strongly worded letter sent to California fire officials last week, 18 firefighting professionals from federal, state and county agencies warned that proposed changes to fire safety road regulations will encourage housing development in high fire-prone areas and increase the risk to lives and property during wildfire evacuations.
New Regulations Would Increase Wildfire Risk to Firefighters and Civilians, Fire Experts Warn
The letter, which is signed by mostly retired fire officials and practicing fire consultants, claims that existing rules "provide reasonable protection and could use some strengthening," whereas the proposed changes "frankly put lives at risk."
They addressed the letter to the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BOF), which is revising the Minimum Fire-Safe Regulations as part of a process overseen by the California Natural Resources Agency, which includes Cal Fire.
State officials are updating, or "refreshing" regulations first enacted in 1991 at a time when out-of-control wildfires are increasingly common in nearly every corner of the state — a rising crisis exacerbated by decades of fire-suppression policies that have loaded forests with fuel, and warming temperatures that prime that wood to burn.
Evacuations are a frightening yet commonplace occurrence for many people living in wildland areas of the Sierra and along the state’s northern coast. Lots of rural California towns were not designed for residents to make a hurried escape, and sit at the end of long, narrow, dead-end roads.
When the Camp Fire roared through Paradise in 2018, for example, people fled en masse only to be caught in gridlock. Some residents abandoned their cars while others died in their vehicles.
"The lack of adequate ingress and egress for residents and first responders significantly contributed to the recent losses of lives and properties in California's wildfires," the letter from the fire officials states. "To claim that the (proposed) road standards are stronger is untrue."
Among the proposed 2021 changes targeted by the letter are:
- Reduce the 20-foot road width standard to 14 feet except for very large developments. The letter warns that 9-foot-wide firefighting equipment cannot possibly pass 6-foot wide passenger vehicles on a 14-foot wide road.
- Eliminate dead-end length limits for all existing roads, remove most turnaround requirements and eliminate length limitations for one-way roads. Current regulations for existing roads have a one-mile length limit for dead-end roads and require turnarounds every 1,320 feet.
- Eliminate requirements for curve radius, gate openings and bridges except for very large developments.
The letter notes that the only place where proposed regulations are stricter is for newly built roads. Most new development occurs on existing roads, they state.
"Many of the existing communities in the highest fire severity zones were never designed to safely support their current housing, commercial and industrial density, let alone additional development," said Doug Leisz, retired associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service and a signer of the letter.
"Communities across the state need stronger protections, not loopholes that would allow new development to be built on substandard unsafe roads. Who will be held liable for the increased loss of lives and property?" Leisz said.
Theirs is just one of a wide array of comments, criticisms and suggestions the BOF has received since it began updating its fire safety regulations. The demands from interest groups, including firefighters, developers, housing advocates, environmentalists and local officials, are often competing and conflicting, leaving policymakers with a somewhat impossible task.
"There is basically no way that we can, make everyone happy," said Darcy Wheeles, a member of the Board of Forestry. Her message to stakeholders upset with the current draft regulations: "Please know that we're listening. We're hearing you."
Wheeles and other state officials say they have to take into account conflicting goals. "We have stakeholders who are asking us to simultaneously protect communities and allow development in areas that are going to burn and also not go crosswise with the governor's and the state's housing goals and climate goals," Wheeles said.
In addition, the reality is that many counties simply ignore the existing regulations, building on long, windy roads that would not simultaneously accommodate both firefighting equipment and fleeing residents. Recognizing that reality, Wheeles says they're hoping to develop updated safety regulations that can in fact be followed.
"One size won't fit all. So we can't just be draconian. We need to provide flexibility as much as we can," Wheeles said. Otherwise local permit reviewers might just ignore the regulations, as many do now.
As the number and severity of wildfires has caused scores of deaths and destroyed thousands of structures in California, policymakers, academics and others have warned about "rebuilding as usual" in fire-prone areas. The letter sent last week by firefighting professionals warns that the proposed changes will spur even more development in risky areas.
On June 22, four Southern California lawmakers — all Democrats — sent a letter to the Board of Forestry, urging them to take into account recommendations from California fire chiefs and others they said would strengthen the regulations.
"We are concerned with any efforts that would further weaken fire safety regulations," they wrote. "When roads are not upgraded and additional development is permitted this increases the number of vehicles that will need to use those roads for evacuations, which increases evacuation times for all existing residents."
That letter followed another one dated the day before from three Northern California Democrats, including state Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco, both housing advocates, saying the proposed changes "would prohibit any future building construction on property served by a road that does not meet current standards, potentially putting large swaths of the state off limits to development."
Adding to the competing political pressure from Democratic legislators, environmentalists and developers are county officials. Tracy Rhine of Rural County Representatives of California, an advocacy group for rural county interests, said it's important for updated regulations to take into account more than things like roads.
"I think that our issue has been through the process not seeing a balance and taking into consideration the other priorities of the state, like housing, affordable housing, even more so," Rhine told KQED.
Rhine says the group's members worry that if regulations around road upgrades are made more stringent it could "take swaths of these rural areas out of out of commission to build on, to increase your business, to rebuild."
Local control of permitting is something of a sacred cow and some local officials worry that tougher regulations will hamper commercial and residential construction, pinching revenues from property taxes and other sources.
Doug Leisz, the former U.S. forestry official, said while the state has done a good job upgrading some parts of its regulations, such as treating and reducing potential fuels, the changes to minimum road standards in particular raised a red flag for him and his colleagues.
"It sets up a situation where you would be trying to get fire equipment to a fire and people evacuating and they couldn't pass one another on the road. Well, that's unconscionable," Leisz said.
Wade Crowfoot, director of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees Cal Fire, says the state is still taking public comment on the matter.
"Comment letters to date reflect a range of perspectives on various aspects of the draft proposal," said Crowfoot in a written statement. "The board is committed to considering input from a broad set of perspectives and will rely on further public engagement to refine regulations that protect public health and safety at a time of growing wildfire risk in California.”
State officials say their hope is to have final regulations for the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to vote on in October.
One thing everyone agrees on: The current regulations, which have been in place for 30 years, need to be updated.