By Eve Kahn, Gary Margadant and Michael Allen
Last December the California Board of Forestry gutted California’s fire safe road regulations, leaving already vulnerable communities at-risk for future destruction.
Perhaps most problematic is the significant reduction in the minimum width of roads. Existing standards require twenty-foot width, while the newly adopted regulations require only fourteen (and no shoulder). This significant reduction means that new homes will be built on roads that have insufficient room for fire trucks to respond to an emergency – especially while residents are evacuating. Most fire trucks are nine feet wide, while the average car is nearly six. Fourteen-foot roads create logistical challenges and potential bottle necks should two fire vehicles need to maneuver around one another (eighteen feet) and leaves insufficient room for cars to squeeze past a fire truck (fifteen feet).
Despite objections from California’s fire fighters and environmental advocates, the Board chose unmitigated sprawl over smart growth. This decision will not only put future residents in very high fire severity zones, but would additionally over-burden existing infrastructure, making it more difficult for current homeowners to evacuate in an emergency.
The elimination of minimum dead-end-road requirements, reduction in bridge weight requirements, and significant weakening of ridgeline protections will likewise have a disastrous impact on vulnerable communities.
Approving these regulations without common sense fire-safe measures or heeding the wisdom of our subject matter experts will further increase wildfire risk to lives and property, tie the hands of our first responders, strain firefighting budgets, and make it more difficult to obtain property insurance.
Exacerbating an already bad decision, the Board chose to apply these rules only to newly constructed roads while allowing continued development to occur on substandard infrastructure. The Board failed to understand the cumulative impact that would occur “downstream” as residents move out of harm’s way. As we have seen in numerous conflagrations, the ability of emergency personnel to move evacuees seamlessly and without pinch points is paramount to saving lives. The regulations also allow local jurisdictions to seek exemptions and reduce these requirements further.
California can build housing where it’s appropriate to build – in city centers with adequate infrastructure, and without increasing the risk to our vulnerable communities. The Board of Forestry must reconsider their regulations and, at a minimum, conduct a CEQA analysis to quantify the dangers of intensifying land use in high fire severity zones.
Eve Kahn and Gary Margadant are co-presidents of Napa Vision 2050. Michael Allen is the Chairman of the Board for Sonoma County Conservation Action.