Board of Forestry Fire Safe Regulations
on the web at: http://sodacanyonroad.org/forum.php?p=2177
Bill Hocker | Jun 22, 2021


Responders backed up by an accident on McFadden's curve.

Update 6/22/21
The Guardian 6/29/21: California developers want to build a city in the wildlands. It could all go up in flames

Will the Fire Safe Regulations really make any difference? Centennial, the city proposed at Tejon Ranch, will no doubt comply with and probably exceed every proposed regulation. And the urban expansion into the state's wildlands will proceed apace.

The issue from Cal Fire's standpoint should not be whether the roads are big enough to get to the fire, but how to stop expanding the urban perimeter they have to defend. By not imposing any meaningful changes to existing roads, which would substantially raise the cost of development in wildland areas, the regulations will do nothing to slow that expansion.

Update 6/22/21 BOF Webinar
What had been originally planned as a Board of Forestry hearing to possibly ratify the Fire Safe Regulations they have been working on for over a year became just one more workshop in the process with more comments and letters from "stakeholders". The comments represented "diametrically opposed views" (in the BOF chair's summation) of the regulations. County governments, developers and some property owners felt that the new regs are so onerous that development would just stop. They bemoaned the lack of local control and flexibility. Environmental groups and some property owners felt that the new regs were a regression and would do nothing to improve safety or slow development in fire hazard areas. They bemoaned the lack of State oversight of the implementation and enforcement of the regs, old or new.

Napa had verbal input on both sides, though not by the County. Chuck Wagner wants more local control and development on the ridgelines. Mr. Erickson wants more building hardening but less regulation of development location. Kellie Anderson wants all roads to be brought to new road standards. Patricia Damery felt the standards have been weakened and wants more state oversite of county exceptions (and called out the county approval of tourist attractions at the end of 6 mile dead-end roads).

There did seem to be a consensus on both sides over one issue (except for one person whose house was on hold in the building dept): more time was needed - 90 days often mentioned - and an EIR should be required (another year at least). Given the unknown impacts of such regulations on development throughout the state, an EIR, though they never seem to change anyting, would seem warranted.

The BOF promised to carefully consider all letters and comments submitted before deciding a path forward, though I'm sure they are under enormous pressure to get this task finished before this year's fire season adds to the complaints about their slowness. Given that they were vigourously attacked from both sides, they may just feel that they have gotten it about right as is, and approve the regs as they are.

Update 6/15/21 BOF Hearing
The Board of Forestry will be meeting on June 22, 2021 to consider and possibly approve (tho unlikely) the current markup version of the Fire Safe regulations. The hearing notice is here.

Comment letters are requested to be submitted before the end of the meeting. Send letters to Edith Hanningan at edith.hannigan@bof.ca.gov

George Caloyannidis Comments
Deborah Eppstein LTE 6/17/21: Proposed regulations will promote fire safety?

Update 6/7/21 BOS Meeting
NVR:6/10/21: Napa County says proposed state wildfire safety regulations threaten fire rebuilding

Revised letter to be sent to the BOF by the BOS. One further modification will be added to the letter based on the 6/8/21 BOS meeting. The expression "Declared Disaster" will be replaced by something equivalent to (for want of a better phrase) "Act of God".

The redline indicates that the new regulations apply to development that "results in an increase of 40 average daily trips (ADT) or less". [County staff indicated that the correction has been made to read "40 average daily trips (ADT) or more"]

Update 6/3/21 County Virtual Stakeholders Meeting
At the Stakeholders zoom meeting on the proposed FSR, County engineer Patrick Ryan made a presentation of the Regs to help clarify with discussion the meaning of the changes. He promised to make his powerpoint available. It would be nice to have a copy of the zoom meeting if possible. Dir. Morrison had a couple of interesting comments. In one he indicted that the Board of Forestry seems to be ignoring the input of local planning departments in their effort to approve the new Regulations. (What he really means is that the BOF is ignoring the input of local development interests - "stakeholders" - that normally control land use policy.) County residents certainly know the feeling of being ignored by government bodies. I can't say it makes us sympathetic.

A similar presentation will be made to the Board of Supervisors on Jun 8, 2021.

Virtual Meeting Notice (Quite odd that it is at the same time as the Planning Commission meeting.)
County webpage about meeting

Update 6/1/21
Patricia Damery has sent a copy of a letter from lawyers representing State Alliance for Fire safe Road Regulations, a group that wants to compel an EIR to assess the impacts of changes to the BOF regulations. Their contention is that in exempting existing roads from compliance in the new Regulations, more development will be facilitated. They make the case that there was never an exemption for existing roads in the previous regulations. Since most new development occurs on old roads, changing wording of provisions to apply only to new roads allows development on old roads that would have been prohibited under the old regulations.

The word "new" appears 4 times in the old regulations (none relating to roads) and 21 times in the revised ones (most relating to roads) . Until reading the letter I had lost the forest for the trees in the tangled undergrowth of the strikeouts, underlines, paragraph movements and subsection references. The revisions are a big win for developers in codifying that minimum road dimensions, radii, grades, dead-end lengths, etc., apply to "new" roads rather than all roads.

Update 5/20/21
On June 22, 2021 The Board of Forestry will hold a Public Hearing to discuss and perhaps vote on proposed changes to the BOF Fire Safe Regulations. The notice for the hearing is here. Comments may be submitted up through the conclusion of the hearing. The BOF may vote to approve the proposed changes at the hearing or may propose revisions based on comments submitted with a future additional comment period and hearing to consider and vote on those revisions.

The official documents related to the hearing are linked on the this Board of Forestry webpage under the menu item "State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations".

Napa County Sup. Gregory mentioned in comments that the 5/18/20 BOS meeting that they will be discussing proposed changes to the State Board of Forestry Fire Safe Regulations on June 8th in preparation for the drafting of a second response letter to the Regulation changes.

Update 4/26/21
NVR 4/26/21: Napa County worries that proposed state fire rules could trigger costly road improvements

I'm not sure if the claim by the Supervisors that rebuilding fire damaged homes will trigger new road construction is more than just a scare tactic to get the public involved. There was an exemption for fire rebuilding in the existing road standards and that exemption has been widened to allow increased footprints.

The notion that adding a bedroom or a minor modificaton to a winery should be allowed discretionary thresholds of intensity or density increase, sounds reasonable until you extrapolate it to all properties using a road and realize that a "mitigation" will always be found to exceed any threshold. Nominally "less-than-significant" impacts on each and every project being built in the County, as we have contended since beginning this blog, add up to a very significant impact on county urbanization as a whole.

Dir. Morrison's concern that the regulations would have a "dramatic effect on development" is, of course, just the point of the regulation changes: to stop the spread of urban development into high fire areas that don't have the firefighting infrasturcture to defend the new development.

I was surprised to find that the Fire Safe Regulations had severe restrictions on dead-end roads. The existing regulation prevents development on dead-end roads longer than 1 mile. The new regulation prevents development on "local" dead-ends longer than a half mile. Why was this not a consideration in approving the Mountain Peak project 6 miles up a dead-end road? Because the county defines Soda Canyon as a "collector" road, not subject to the Fire Safe Regulations. As a collector, however, Soda Canyon is substandard in width, radii and slope on the grade by the county's own road and street standards. And there are sections of the road narrower than the 20' minimum required by the Fire Safe Regs for collectors. (The County also designates Monticello Rd and Hwy 128 as a "Freeway (2 Lanes)" - there does seem to be a bit of road inflation going on.)

In any case, fires don't know the difference between "local" and "collector" roads particularly in constrained high fire risk canyons. As the Atlas fire showed, a dead-end collector is still a dead-end road, and the length along which a fire can wreck havoc to block access is a significant factor in its safety.

Numerous projects have been appealed to the board on the basis of their access constraints and the fire dangers that are a result. Anthem Winery was the most recently approved despite substantial fire hazard concerns.

The Board knows, as they acknowledge in their letter, that most of the roads in the county are substandard -- they are so even under the old BOF regulations. Yet they continue to approve tourism-reliant winery projects in remote areas of the county (including the creation of a new ordinance allowing private homes to be turned into tasting rooms.) Their concern is for the promotion of "growth" (and in Napa County that means tourism growth) at all costs.

The BOF is pursuing a rapid timeline on the new regulations precisely because counties have failed to heed their old regulations, and the BOF knows that if the process is drawn out, thousands of projects in the pipeline will be rushed to approval, adding to the firefighting burden in hazardous areas in the future. The import of the new regulations is not just that their conditions will impose greater restrictions than the old regulations, but that the state is now ready to enforce their regulations in a way that they haven't before.

Update 2/15/21
The Board of Forestry has sent out a new draft of the fire safe regulations. In this latest revision, existing sub-standard roads, for example those less than 20' wide or dead-ends greater than 1 mile in length, may be used for new development that doesn't exceed pre-defined numerical thresholds. Several options are proposed in the new draft as possibilities for creating those thresholds. This acknowledgement that the Board of Forestry is willing to accept sub-standard, and more dangerous roads in certain development circumstances is a divergence from the previous regulations which, in theory, would have made standards applicable all new developent.

The revised (2/8/21) Draft is here.
PRN comments on the draft
Napa Vision 2050 letter to the BOF

2/3/21
Following the California wildfires in 2017, which had major impacts on Napa and Sonoma counties (though worse was yet to come), Sen. Bill Dodd sponsored CA SB-901 in a wide ranging effort to address wildfire danger in the state. In one of its many provisions, "This bill would also require the state forestry board to adopt regulations implementing minimum fire safety standards that are applicable to lands classified and designated as very high fire hazard severity zones and would require the regulations to apply to the perimeters and access to all residential, commercial, and industrial building construction within lands classified and designated as very high fire hazard severity zones, as defined, after July 1, 2021"

Following the California Wildfires of 2020 which again devastated large areas of Northern California, State Sens. Stern and Allen introduced Ca SB-55 that would "prohibit the creation or approval of a new development, as defined, in a very high fire hazard severity zone or a state responsibility area." The bill is short with no exemptions, and seems unlikely to become law. The Board of Forestry seems to be proceeding on the basis of attempting to satisfy the requirements of SB-901 rather than the absoulute prohibitions of SB-55. [Update: a subsequent revision completely emasculated the bill to the benefit of developers.]

In 1991 the State of California Board of Forestry (BOF) established Fire Safe Regulations defining road standards in state responsibility areas (SRA's are beige on this map). The regulations define minimum road widths, maximum gradients, required turnouts and turnarounds, road surfaces, dead-end road lengths, curve radii, water provision, and vegetation management. The standards are intended to insure that firefighters have adequate access for their equipment in the event of wildfires.

Following the requirements of SB 901, the Board of Forestry has begun to review its 1991 standards. In 2019 they produced a first draft of changes to the current regulations. And beginning in Nov 2020 the Board has convened a series of workshops on the draft regulations, and comments have been submitted. A new draft of the regulations will be published on Feb 8th with a request for further comments. The documents are here. A background of the issues and contacts for submission of comments, from the perspective of some concerned citizens of Sonoma, are here.

The draft regulations would expand the areas of regulation to another set of High Fire Hazard Severity Zones beyond the current SRA's into Local Responsibility Areas (LRA's). And they would strengthen certification to insure that local fire safety regulations comply with state regulations with a new emphasis on existing roadways serving new development.

The use of substandard existing roads to access new development has in the past been excused in new development approvals; since the preponderance of new development in the state has been to expand into rural and mountainous areas at the edges of its megalopolises, the impact on new development projects requiring all existing roads to be upgraded would be substantial. In the case of existing dead-end roads, or roads with non-compliant widths, curves and gradients previously mitigatible development would become unfeasible.

State regulations allow for local governments to use their own standards in approving development projects as long as those standards are "equal or more stringent" and provide "the same practical effect as" the level of fire protection in the state standards. But seldom are the mitigations that local authorities accept as providing "the same practical effect" challenged, and counties have been free heretofore to approve developments based on local regulations often, in fact, more lenient than the state regualtions.

But the recent wildfires have changed the state's willingness to allow local governments to overlook or mitigate-away state standards. In 2019 an exception for existing roads was argued by Monterey County on the behalf of a developer and the argumemt was firmly rejected by the State Atorney General. The Attorney General has also stepped in to join a lawsuit against the Guenoc Valley project in Lake County over fire issues.

Sonoma County has tried in the last year to certify their own Fire Safety Ordinance. An article in the Sonoma County Gazette gives an overview of the effort so far. The State has not been persuaded. The BOF responded to the Sonoma Ordinance in this letter. The Board has suspended certifying any local ordinances until the revision of the state regulations are finalized.

An association of county governments that lobbies the state, the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), is weighing in on the proposed BOF Fire Safe Regulation changes. The member counties, often in the grip of development interests that promise fees, taxes, jobs (and campaign contributions), are, of course, quite concerned about the regulations' impact on their construction projects. It remains to be seen how effective they will be in reducing the fire safe measures the state now seems intent on enforcing. Sup. Diane Dillon is Napa's member in the assocaition. Napa County doesn't yet seemed to have weighed in on the draft.

What this means for Napa County

Wine and Water Watch take on NapaVision2050 article: PLAYING WITH FIRE Is Napa County Ignoring Forestry and State Road Standards for Fire Safety?

It was news to me that State regulations do not allow commercial development on dead end roads longer than 1 mile in high fire severity SRA's like Soda Canyon Road. In the new draft, that distance for new roads is shortened to one-half mile. It may be news to other residents of the county facing a winery in their backyard that roads leading to the project might be required to be raised to state fire safe standards if the projects are to be approved. Such a requirement would be good news to all county residents currently fighting the county over the commercialization of their neighborhoods for event centers and tasting rooms.

A remand of the Mountain Peak project back to the Napa Board of Supervisors to revisit the fire safety of Soda Canyon Road in light of the devastation of the 2017 fire is due in the not-too-distant future. The Board of Forestry should be asked to weigh in specifically on their half mile limitation on new development in the SRA's, and the county should be asked to justify their exemption from BOF standards in approving some winery projects.

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