If Your Community Is Concerned About the Threat of Wildfire, Here Is Some Useful InformationJanuary 1, 2019
The risk of wildfire is increasing in both significance and prevalence in California. Wildfire poses a significant risk to public health and safety, economies, infrastructure and natural resources. This article addresses statewide actions recently taken by the Legislature and provides additional actions that local agencies can take to reduce the risk of wildfires and protect residents and property.
The Legislature’s Efforts to Address Wildfire Threat
The state is ramping up its efforts to address fire danger. In September 2018, the following bills were signed into law:
Senate Bill 901 – A controversial bill intended to help California utilities pay for wildfires sparked by power lines allows the state’s investor-owned utilities to issue cost-recovery bonds that will be repaid by charges on customers’ electric bills, with the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Most notably, SB 901 requires utilities to adopt wildfire mitigation plans; calls for the creation of a commission to examine catastrophic wildfires associated with utility infrastructure; eases rules for tree cutting and addresses the disposal of dead wood and brush that fuel wildfires; requires the CPUC to enter into a memorandum of understanding with CalFire to address several wildfire-related issues; provides that CEQA would not apply to the issuance of a permit or other project approval by a state or local agency for fire, thinning, or fuel reduction projects; and authorizes local agencies to comment on public utilities’ proposed wildfire mitigation plans.
Senate Bill 1260 – Helps protect California communities from catastrophic wildfire by improving forest management. Most notably, local agencies must designate very high fire hazard severity zones in their jurisdiction, even if they have adopted ordinances as strict as state standards; if a board of supervisors or city council decides not to adopt CalFire’s recommendations for the safety element in its general plan, CalFire can request a consultation with the board of supervisors or city council; and, before a local agency approves a tentative map or parcel map, it must make a finding that the subdivision is consistent with any regulations adopted by CalFire relating to buildings or structures in hazardous fire areas or mountainous forest, brush, and grass-covered lands.
Senate Bill 833 – Mandates improvement of emergency alert systems in communities across the state. SB 833 requires the Office of Emergency Services (OES) to establish guidelines for alerting and warning the public about an emergency by July 1, 2019. OES will be required to provide each city and county with a copy of these guidelines. Notably, six months after these guidelines are provided to cities and counties, OES may impose conditions upon a city’s or county’s application for any voluntary grant funds that have a nexus to emergency management performance that it administers. These conditions can require the city or county to operate its alert and warning activities in a manner that is consistent with the guidelines it develops.
Assembly Bill 2911 – Provides electric utility workers new access to private land to trim trees and brush away from power lines, boosts other efforts to create defensible space around structures.
Assembly Bill 1956 – Establishes a local assistance grant program for fire prevention activities. “Fire prevention activities” means lawful activities that reduce the risk of wildfire, including, but not limited to, mechanical vegetation management, grazing, prescribed burns, creation of defensible space, and retrofitting of structures to increase fire resistance. AB 1956 requires CalFire to prioritize local assistance grant funding in and near fire threatened communities for multiyear projects.
Additional Actions Local Governments Can Take to Minimize Risk
As residential development amidst fire-prone vegetation expands, sources of ignitions increase. This development also creates more infrastructure to protect during fires. Local government plays an increasingly important role in minimizing exposure to fire hazards. Land use regulations can be used to guide or restrict residential development to minimize wildfire risk and incorporate wildfire risk into community planning. Here are some ideas to consider:
General Plan Tools
Too often, wildfire hazard is underplayed in the general plan. Since January 1, 2014, state law requires that upon revision of the housing element, the safety element shall be reviewed and updated as necessary to address the risk for lands classified by CalFire as state responsibility areas or very high fire hazard severity zones. Local agencies could consider incorporating effective wildfire-related policies such as the following in their general plan updates:
- Require compact development away from the wildland-urban interface. Specific strategies could include the use of transfer of development rights to create incentives to leave land undeveloped in wildfire-prone areas and develop in safer areas.
- Require fire districts/departments to engage in wildland fire training with a recognized state or federal wildland fire agency at least once a year.
- Conduct a public awareness campaign about the potential for exotic trees (e.g., eucalyptus and Monterey pine) to burn explosively creating “spot” fires miles from primary blazes.
Update or Adopt a Community Wildfire Protection Plan
A Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) is a strategic plan designed to specifically address a community’s unique conditions, values, and priorities related to wildfire risk reduction and resilience. Because wildfires often threaten areas much larger than individual communities, local agencies may want to participate in multi-jurisdictional CWPPs. This larger scale of planning increases the level of coordination and cooperation among stakeholders which can lead to broader and more efficient wildfire risk mitigation measures. A broader effort can also help prioritize and strengthen requests for competitive funding grants for fuel reduction treatments and can facilitate the adoption of common standards for defensible space. Communities with a CWPP are given priority for funding of hazardous fuels reduction projects carried out under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003.
Adopt Mutual Aid Agreements with Fire Departments
Local governments should ensure they have proactive and effective mutual aid agreements to allow sharing of fire-fighting resources. A mutual aid agreement is a pre-arranged plan and contract between agencies for reciprocal assistance upon request by the first-response agency. All agencies are required to provide mutual aid in times of extreme disaster as part of Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Master Mutual Aid Agreement.
Employ New Technologies
Oftentimes wind-driven fires move so fast or the smoke is so thick that firefighters are not always aware of where flames are or where they are headed. Some local agencies including Sonoma County and Marin County are investing in infrared fire camera systems for live broadcasting. Agencies are also exploring the use of warning sirens as an additional tool to alert the public of wildfires and other major emergencies.
Implement Additional Training for Emergency Staff
Even when public alerts and warning systems are in place, disaster communications fail for a multitude of reasons with the result that people receive late notice, if any at all. Local governments would benefit from additional training, exercises, and awareness, with emphasis on coordinated communications and more preparation using evacuation scenarios. For example, see this Wildland/Urban Interface Fires Training Program.
California’s efforts to address wildfire safety are steps in the right direction, but additional action by local agencies is required to protect the public from devastating wildfires.
For more information, contact SMW planner Laurel Impett.