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As The Countryside Burns, Planning Changes Gain Urgency

Jul 11, 2008
A bomb detonated in my front yard at 3:30 a.m. on June 21. Actually, it was an explosive from the sky in the form of lightning, and it was the start of an electrical storm that continued for 11 hours.

Nearly three weeks later, firefighters are still battling blazes sparked by that lightning in the mountains and canyons around me. My house has remained safe, but residents of hundreds of other houses in the area have evacuated. One question that comes to mind during a crisis like this is whether these houses including mine should even exist. If legislation proposed in Sacramento had been approved 40 years ago, the houses probably would not be here.

I live in a high fire hazard zone in Shasta County. My lot and three others were created with a four-way parcel split during the 1970s. I'm guessing that the provision of fire services was just assumed by everybody at the time. We have a very small volunteer fire department, but it's the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF or Cal Fire) that is responsible when blazes erupt.

The typical practice in counties across the state has been to leave fire protection of the countryside up to CDF. But nowadays, CDF's annual firefighting budget is approaching $1 billion. When you're in the vicinity of a large wildland fire, you understand why: You see the thousands of firefighters, the armadas of heavy equipment and the array of aircraft that go into action against a wildfire.

Those of us who live in this kind of state responsibility area (SRA) are thankful that state taxpayers subsidize our fire protection. But the free ride may be over for us soon. And we might not get many more neighbors.

It appears possible that the state budget deal could include some sort of new funding for CDF, either in the form of a surcharge on insurance premiums or a direct assessment on property owners. A homeowner like me might pay something in the neighborhood of $50 a year.

Several pieces of legislation seek to limit development in SRAs. Assembly Bill 2447 (Jones) would prohibit a county from approving a subdivision or parcel map in an SRA or a very high fire hazard severity zone unless the responsible fire agency it will almost always be CDF verifies in writing that adequate structural fire protection will be available, and the Board of Supervisors makes findings regarding fire-safe structures, road access and emergency water systems.

Who supports AB 2447? Unions of firefighters the men and women who are working in 110-degree heat and brutally smoky conditions to protect houses like mine. Who is against AB 2447? County governments, specifically my county's Board of Supervisors, that approve the houses these firefighters are trying to preserve. The bill has passed the Assembly.

Senate Bill 1500 (Kehoe) would require areas with an average residential density exceeding three dwellings per acre to be removed from an SRA, meaning a local agency would have to provide fire protection. This policy would be an enormous change that would discourage development on the exurban fringe and in resort areas places with medium density housing that have long relied on CDF.

A different Kehoe bill (SB 1764) would require a local agency to receive certification from the state fire marshal before the state would pick up more than 75% of disaster-related costs. Opponents, including San Diego County, argue the bill's language would prevent communities from relying on volunteer fire departments. I should note that San Diego County is only now beginning to take steps to implement proposals stemming from the tragic 2003 Southern California firestorms for creation of a countywide fire department and new fire taxes.

The point of all the legislation is to change the business-as-usual approach and force counties to take more responsibility for fire safety. The choice is to enforce fire-safe development and building practices, and establish and fund local fire departments, or to prohibit development in fire-prone rural areas. As I look out my window at a procession of helicopters flying through skies full of smoke and ash, I can't argue against those ideas.

Paul Shigley
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