Rural areas, counties ask for help as California fire season heats up

The remains of a home and nearby house in the Glen Ellen area of Sonoma County, following a 2017 fire.(Photo: RebeccaJaneCall, via Shutterstock)

Representatives of California’s counties are urging improved measures to cut wildfire risks in the state’s less populated areas, but questioned plans to impose widespread building restrictions.

This action, led by the rural counties, comes within days of Gov. Gavin Newsom retreating on $1 billion of wildfire prevention efforts, cutting the figure by more than half. 

“The ostensible exemptions of wildfire rebuilds and accessory dwelling units from these requirements are fatally unclear.” — Tracy Rhine

The Rural County Representatives of California, the California State Association of Counties, and the Urban Counties of California urged the Board of Forestry and Forest Protection to include rural representatives in significant decisions and update current rules set forth for wildfire rebuilds in fire-prone areas.

Tracy Rhine, senior legislative advocate for Rural County Representatives of California, says some regulations established by the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection negatively affect rural communities wishing to rebuild after fire damages and create extra expenses. 

“The ostensible exemptions of wildfire rebuilds and accessory dwelling units from these requirements are fatally unclear. Rebuilding an existing home or business creates no new impact, no heightened fire risk, and no increased fire serve a need. There is no nexus to require upgrades to existing public roads as a condition of rebuilding these structures,” the letter stated. 

When a private citizen wants to rebuild on their property after fire damage, they must take extra steps to ensure all roads meet requirements, like width and grading or steepness, Rhine said. If any bridges are deemed flammable that connect to a main road, they need to be removed.

They (counties) try to do as much fire preparation as they can. How do they fund all of this?” — Staci Heaton

“All of these things are upgraded at the landowner’s or homeowner’s expense,” Rhine added. 

Echoing Rhine’s fears of added stress to fire-prone areas of California, Staci Heaton, senior regulatory affairs advocate for the rural counties, said funding for rebuilds and pre-fire property management is a big issue. This includes funds to clear and dispose of fire fuel, like timber.

“Our counties preparing for fire seasons expect the worst and prepare for evacuations. In the interim, they try to do as much fire preparation as they can. How do they fund all of this? Most fire-prone counties are also our most rural and remote; those that have the fewest resources and the most challenges competing for grant money,” Heaton said.  

Heaton says rural areas are concerned about Newsom backing down from the $1 billion fire budget, ultimately securing just $458 million over the next year, Capital Public Radio reported.

New housing developments in high-prone fire areas are popping up around the state.

She said that while state and local governments are in communication, she is worried about the progress.

“It’s the same thing every year. We have been talking about the need for forest resilience and fire prevention. With us coming off the worst fire season in the state’s history, what is it really going to take? This is a public safety issue, a climate change issue, a public health issue, and a water supply issue,” Heaton added. 

But with many residents moving out of cities and building new homes in rural areas, particularly in the foothill areas, more areas are now prone to wildfire damage, Cal Fire says. 

New housing developments in high-prone fire areas are popping up around the state, the L.A. Times editorial board noted. Efforts to eradicate this include previous California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. More recently, Senate Bill 12, authored by Senator Mike McGuire, D- Healdsburg, would prohibit cities and counties from approving new housing developments unless they are protected from wildfires.

“California faces a massive backlog of forest management work. Millions of acres are in need of treatment…” — Cal Fire

Rhine said Senate Bill 12 sets forth rules for building in high fire areas and aims to look at how to mitigate wildfire risk and alleviate some pressures private citizens face.

 “Local governments need to come to the table with the state to have these conversations. We need more affordable housing, and we need to mitigate the wildfire risk to individuals and communities that develop in that area,” she added, saying the bill looks at wildfire-prone areas from a macro level. 

“What should these communities in high fire areas look like? Should we build in these areas? What would happen to those communities when modest expansions of business or home building will trigger these regulations?” she added.

And amid the risks of building in these areas, insurance companies may soon be dropping insurance coverage for those in these fire-prone areas, beginning November, according to Cal Matters.

“California faces a massive backlog of forest management work. Millions of acres are in need of treatment, and this work — once completed — must be repeated over the years,” Cal Fire stated in a 2019 report. 

Cal Fire also reports this 2021 fire season will be longer than last year. More than 4.2 million acres of California were scorched in 2020. As Capitol Weekly previously reported, California already is experiencing a 26% increase in wildfire activity over last year and a 58% increase in acres burned compared to 2020, state officials reported. 

As of July 5, the Lava Fire in rural Siskiyou County burned more than 25,000 acres and is being fought by over 1,600 personnel, according to the U.S. Forest Service. 

To date, Cal Fire reported seeing higher than average activity this fire season, resulting in increased staffing earlier than usual. 

As of June 20, California has experienced over 3,700 wildfires that have burned nearly 30,000 acres,” Cal Fire said in an email to Capitol Weekly. This time last year, Cal Fire reported just over 3,000 wildfires that burned just over 20,000 acres. 

“This will result in a longer fire season generally and, historically, the months of September and October are when we experience the largest and most destructive fires.  We still have a long way to go,” Cal Fire added, stating the return of drought conditions and 100 plus degree days. 

 The Governor’s office was not available for comment. 

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