What’s the future of Sonoma County’s fire ordinance?
Amid another extreme fire season, concerned Sonoma County residents wonder why their Board of Supervisors is fervently working to exempt new development on unsafe roads from Cal Fire safety standards.
Residents as well as the following advocacy groups submitted opposition letters: Bennett Valley Residents for Safe Development, Forests Unlimited, General Plan Update Environmental Coalition, Greenbelt Alliance, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, Sierra Club, Sonoma County Conservation Council and Wine and Water Watch.
State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BOF) agrees:
For the fourth time this year, the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BOF) has refused to certify Sonoma County’s Fire Safe Ordinance, as it does not meet safety standards. Subsequently, on November 4, the BOF unanimously adopted a moratorium on considering county certifications, having wasted untold hours and public dollars during 2020 evaluating Sonoma County’s flawed ordinances.
Cal Fire standards require new development to provide concurrent emergency vehicle access and egress of residents during a wildfire. We question why our Supervisors refuse to protect firefighters and the public in the wildland urban interface.
• What motives could justify knowingly sacrificing lives and property? Is it to promote unfettered housing and commercial development in high fire hazard locations?
• Does the County strive to eliminate all constraints to new development thereby preserving its micro-management of the approval process? Given the Supervisors have put off the General Plan indefinitely, perhaps the County lacks the strategic framework and fortitude to lead with policy?
• Or were the Supervisors woefully misinformed by County Counsel concerning the Ordinance’s lack of standards, which failed to meet Cal Fire standards?
An October 23 BOF letter (p. 2) stated BOF staff “have significant concerns” that Sonoma County’s standards do not “allow concurrent civilian evacuation.” It emphasized (p. 8) the County’s failure to cooperate, refusing even to respond to direct questions: “Sonoma County has had repeated opportunities to identify and provide citations for these standards. Sonoma County repeatedly declines to do so.”
Sonoma County finally acknowledged this fiasco and removed its request for certification from the November BOF agenda.
As directed by the legislature, the BOF first issued regulations in 1991 to require fire-safe roads for new development in the State Responsibility Area (SRA, essentially the wildland urban interface) where Cal Fire is responsible for fighting fires.
The current minimum state requirements for new development include:
• 20-foot wide roads (Cal Fire Type 3 engines are 9-10 feet wide, plus mirrors; most civilian vehicles are over 6 feet wide);
• No dead-end roads longer than 1 mile; and turnarounds on dead-end roads so firefighters won’t get trapped in a conflagration.
• Further, state law now requires the BOF to identify existing developments in very high fire hazard zones without secondary egress routes and to develop recommendations to improve fire safety there.
While counties may adopt their own fire safe ordinances if the ordinance “meets or exceeds” the SRA regulations or if it has “the same practical effect,” Sonoma County is the only county this year to request certification of an ordinance. When the BOF refuses to certify an ordinance, the SRA regulations are the rule of law.
Does Sonoma County refuse to obey the law?
Despite not having a certified ordinance, Sonoma County has continued to approve commercial developments this year that violate the SRA regulations.
On August 4, Sonoma County Supervisors adopted an ordinance that substitutes a 12 foot “path of travel” (one lane) for a 20-foot-wide road (two lanes), and removed requirements for turnarounds or grade as well as any limits on dead-end roads.
A Supervisor’s letter to the BOF asserted that the county’s “strenuous” and “exceptional” standards “far exceed State law.” Fire Marshal James Williams, who should know better, wrote essentially the same thing. The BOF rejected their contention that 12 feet “meets or exceeds” 20 feet. The BOF also rejected their claim that a one-lane road where a fire engine and vehicles fleeing from a fire create a bottleneck has “the same practical effect” as a two-lane road where the vehicles can feasibly pass one another.
During the September BOF meetings, BOF Chair Dr. Keith Gilless praised the detailed analyses prepared by stakeholder groups, and acknowledged the benefits of having “many eyes analyzing” the discrepancies between the state’s regulations and Sonoma County’s ordinance.