Bill Hocker | Feb 15, 2021Protect Rural Napa has submitted the following comments to The State Board of Forestry as they seek to modify state regulations related to road standards for "Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones" in state and local fire protection responsibility areas following the 2017-2020 fires. More information on the ongoing modification process is here.
February 17, 2021
Land Use Planning Policy Manager
CAL FIRE/Board of Forestry
We would like to respond to your 2/8/21 draft
of the BOF Fire Safe Regulations.
Protect Rural Napa was only recently made aware of the Board of Forestry's efforts to modify the regulations, thus our apologies for this late reply. Our response may be somewhat general compared to the specific comments of others that have been involved in nitty-gritty of the workshops up to this point.
Soda Canyon Road
Protect Rural Napa advocates for the protection of the rural environment of Napa County and in particular for the protection of the canyon and upland valley served by Soda Canyon Road, a 7 mile long dead-end road in the county. The road is entirely within the State Responsibility Area. The first 4 miles of the road lie in the designated "moderate" fire hazard severity zone. The upper 3 miles, which include a steep grade, a pass, and a high valley, lie in the "very high" fire severity zone.
The road was heavily impacted in the 2017 Atlas Fire, particularly the lower end in the moderate zone. Nearly every house burned and two people died. During the fire a tree-fall across the road blocked egress from the canyon and fire trucks coming up the road. By the time it was cleared firefighters had decided that the canyon was too dangerous to advance. At the upper end of the road people were removed by helicopter, but only one house burned. (The destructiveness of wildfires is obviously not limited by severity zone designation.)
We also experienced a major fire that burned the entire upper valley in 1981. In 2020 the Hennessey Fire burned the entire northern ridge of the upper valley. Our concerns about fire safety, unfortunately, come from experience.
While we have an interest in how the new regulations relate to road design, and especially to dead-end length, our particular concern in the draft is whether the changes will reduce or will encourage future development that will add to wildfire destructiveness and further urbanize rural lands that we feel should be retained as a necessary component of a healthy and sustainable environment.
In this regard we support CA SB-55
, which would prevent further building development in very high fire hazard severity areas and other SRA's. (We would, however, support an exemption for the replacement of fire damaged structures.) CA SB-55 is easy to understand and addresses the basic fact that continued development in the state's mountainous and forested lands will only increase the economic and human costs of wildfires and diminish the environmental benefit of forest and watershed protection and of concentrating urban development to reduce transport imacts. Unfortunately it is probably too optimistic to expect the enactment of such an effective and simple solution to the long term problems we face. It is concerning that BOF regulations seem to place no limit on the amount of development that might occur in the SRA's as long as minimum road standards are met. [Update; The bill was completely modified in a subsequent revision, eliminating reference to commercial/industrial construction - which thus have no prohibitions in high fire risk zones - and providing developers density bonuses for not building in high fire risk zones. As we see over and over, all laws relating to land use are crafted by developers.
The proposed BOF standards related to dead-end road length (in the existing standards as well) are good, but for us they highlight a question about what degree of compliance local governments must give to the standards. In the case of Soda Canyon Road, prior to the 2017 fire, Napa County granted an approval to a winery project that will accomodate 40 visitors per day, 19 daily employees and individual events up to 125 people, located 6 miles up the road. (The one-mile BOF standard was a surprise to us!) Other proposed winery projects in the county are further than 1 mile up dead end roads or are on sub-standard roads, yet, despite the glaring discrepecies with the BOF standards, the projects were nonetheless approved. Is there a method of appeal to the BOF when it seems that local governments have been overly solicitious to developers regarding fire access regulations?
Concerning future delopment in the SRA's, the section on "Aggregate Risk" in the proposed draft might most closely reflect out concerns, particularly using the tool of vehicle trips created by new development as a control on substandard roads and the need for major public infrastructure upgrades which might slow development in the SRA's. As we read the proposal, development on substandard roads, roads that you already see as problematic from a fire fighting standpoint and may already be well beyond needed egress capacity, would be allowed to double. This doesn't make sense. It would seem to be more appropriate for the BOF to adopt an absolute number of egressing vehicles (10?, 25?, 50?) that can be reasonably accommodated on a substandard road with ingressing fire vehices, beyond which a two-lane road, whether on private or public land, would be required. Existing substandard roads serving fewer than that number of one-way trips could develop up to that point. Those already at that level would not be allowed future development until the entire road conforms to standard.
There are probably other concerns over the specific issues in the draft which will take more time to understand, and we anticipate more carefuly monitoring the process in the future.
We would like to re-emphasize that even access roads that are compliant with BOF standards in the SRA's (as the lower part of Soda Canyon Road is) will not prevent the massive loss of structures seen in recent fires. Only a cessation of construction in those areas will reduce the risk to property and lives. To the extent that these changes in the regulations will inhibit the urbanization of the state's wildlands, they serve the public good. If they end up reducing protections and allow incresed intensity of use it is not clear why they are being changed.
Our sincere thanks for the enormous effort you have made to bring the views of a wide variety of stakeholders to the table.
Bill Hocker for
Protect Rural Napa
Soda Canyon Road