The following is a Letter to the Editor of the Mountain Democrat by George Osborne,Cal Fire chief, El Dorado, Amador & Alpine counties (retired) and a current El Dorado Irrigation District board member; Scott Vail,fire staff officer with the Eldorado National Forest (retired), deputy chief OES Fire & Rescue (retired), Type 1 incident commander and Type 1 operations chief; and Brian K. Veerkamp, executive director of the El Dorado County Emergency Services Authority, fire chief of El Dorado Hills Fire (retired), El Dorado County supervisor (retired) and a current El Dorado Irrigation District board member. We are warned of the dangers presented by a softening of Fire Safety Regulations by the California Board of Forestry.
The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection’s proposed changes to existing fire-safe regulations will risk the safety of firefighters and residents during wildfires. That’s the conclusion reached by fire experts after reviewing the draft regulations.
Today’s mega-fires burning just to the east and north of El Dorado County warn us of the great threat of wildfires. Very dry conditions, hot weather and fuels ready to burn at a critical time in the fire season signal a need for all of us to be prepared for dangerous times ahead. We need and have fire-safe regulations that address these severe conditions. Yet, it was a shock to us to find the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection on the verge of weakening public safety regulations and unwilling to deal with these serious issues.
The Board of Forestry’s proposed changes will significantly weaken the 30-year-old regulations, reducing common-sense regulations for development of land in high fire-prone areas. Adding more development, without fire safe measures, to existing communities where evacuations are already problematic further increases wildfire risk to lives and property. It reduces the ability of responders to defend your property, strains firefighting budgets and may raise or jeopardize your ability to obtain property insurance.
Almost all new development connects to some existing roads. The draft proposal removes most regulations for existing roads that provide access to new development without upgrading the existing roads to standards that allow for concurrent safe evacuation and the entrance of firefighting equipment, thus endangering residents, firefighters and homes. The 2020 regulations required 20-foot access roads (even for the existing roads supporting new development), provided length limitations on dead-end roads and one-way roads. The proposed 2021 regulations remove most regulations for existing roads thus allowing a road width of 14 feet for existing roads supporting new development. That spells disaster for residents when wildfires require evacuation. Automobiles and fire engines simply cannot pass on 14-foot-wide roads. The lack of adequate ingress and egress for residents and first responders have significantly contributed to the recent losses of life and properties in California’s wildfires.
Draft regulations remove the 1-mile dead-end road limitation for all existing roads, as well as most turnarounds. They would allow development on narrow, dead-end roads 10 miles or longer. Maximum grade is proposed to be unlimited except if over 25% grade. Excessive road grades and tight turns are impossible for some fire suppression equipment.
The clear intent of the legislation for Fire Safe Regulation (Article 2) for road standards was and remains in the 2020 regulations: “shall provide for safe access for emergency wildfire equipment and civilian evacuation concurrently, and shall provide unobstructed traffic circulation during a wildfire emergency ….”
These proposed regulations fail to meet the stated objectives.
At the direction of the Legislature per SB 901 (Sen. Dodd, 2018), the Board of Forestry is in the process of updating these regulations to meet new state law. The revision of the regulations has opened up opportunity to reduce the high standards for public safety in place since 1991 and endorsed by the California Fire Service. Opening up areas for development in areas without adequate road means of access and egress puts the public at risk. We just should not be building in these areas, in our opinion.
What can we do about the draft regulations? You can object to them simply stating they weaken the existing regulations and fly in the face of public safety. That is what we have done. We must get these regulations revised before they are adopted.
It is remarkable the El Dorado County has 26 fire safe councils. We must make sure that the Board of Forestry’s proposed regulations do not weaken fire safety adding more work for these councils.