The tragedy of the Camp Fire in Butte County must give us pause because it could very well happen here.
People are speaking up and advocating for change, asking for new regulations to expand and enforce fuel clearance around structures and create new fuel breaks to protect our communities. Those are valuable suggestions, but is also important to acknowledge the reality of wildland fire hazards in our future planning as well.
Policies and programs that apply to future development are found in the Tuolumne County General Plan, and a new General Plan Update is now being rushed for approval. That draft document was recently circulated for comments along with a Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and hearings are scheduled for December and early January.
State law requires a General Plan to address natural hazards such as geologic hazards or wildland fires, and the proposed General Plan Update spends very little effort to address any hazard including wildland fires.
The EIR briefly addresses wildland fire hazards but has no proposed changes and concludes with: “compliance with General Plan Update policies and state and local regulations would require development standards, defensible space, and other features to reduce the potential for wildland fire hazards, projected development under the General Plan Update would result in less-than-significant impacts.”
The EIR says that new development can occur even in High Wildland Fire Hazard areas with no requirements other than what are already in the General Plan. It is important to understand that the proposed General Plan Update adds no new policies or requirements beyond what have already been in place in the existing General Plan for over 20 years.
Few new subdivisions have been created in the past 20 years, but there are examples of ones that have. For instance, a very successful subdivision was all planned and constructed within that time frame on Sierra Meadows Drive off of Jamestown Road, it was even given permission to make lots extra small by agreeing to sell some of the tract homes to lower income buyers.
It is located adjacent to a densely forested agricultural property of oaks and grey pine, with a thick understory of brush, in other words some of the most fire-prone habitat imaginable. Some of the backyards are so small the homes are within 15 ft. of this fire-prone property which makes the potential for catastrophic wildfire extremely high.
There are policies and “requirements” in the existing (and proposed) General Plan that make developments such as this example create and maintain defensible setbacks, and “mitigate wildland fire hazards in such a manner that it minimizes the chance of wildland fire originating outside the development from entering the development.”
But clearly none of that was enforced by the Fire Prevention specialists, planners, and planning commissioners reviewing the project, nor the BOS when approving it.
Simply building the homes to meet the modern state-required building codes is not enough, certainly some of the newer homes lost in Paradise were also built to modern codes.
The new General Plan needs to be rewritten to finally accept that we cannot continue to put people at risk in the wildland-urban interface without taking the threat seriously and require new development to truly reduce the risk to “less-than-significant.”
And of course, the development review process up through approval by the BOS has to actually enforce the new requirements along those that are being given lip service today.
Most of Tuolumne County has been lucky so far, we have not yet experienced a large-scale catastrophic wildfire in our communities and residential areas. We cannot rest easy now that the winter rains have finally begun, we must take action to start reducing the threats to our homes and communities.
However, this is not the time to rush to approve a General Plan Update that fails to make any real attempt to deal with this issue, the new Board of Supervisors can vote on a more complete Update during the next year after these types of deficiencies have been solved.
Larry Beil is retired from Tuolumne County, where he spent 29 years as a planner and created the County’s Geographic Information System (GIS) program now used for mapping and analysis in planning, resource management, public works and emergency dispatch.