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California unveils sweeping wildfire prevention plan amid record fire losses and drought

John Myers, LOS ANGELES TIMES

California Wildfire and Resilience Action Plan

After the worst fire season in California history and as drought conditions raise fears of what’s to come, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders unveiled a $536-million proposal Thursday to boost efforts at firefighting and a variety of prevention measures, including vegetation management and the construction of fire-resistant structures across the state.

The proposal, which the Legislature could send to the governor’s desk as soon as Monday, marks an early agreement by the governor and lawmakers to spend more than half of the $1 billion in wildfire funding Newsom called for in his state budget proposal in January. The gravity of the issue became clear last week after state officials reported the water content in the Sierra Nevada snowpack stood at 59% of the average for early spring.

“The science is clear: Warming winter temperatures and warming summer temperatures across the American West are creating more challenging and dangerous wildfire conditions,” said Wade Crowfoot, the governor’s secretary of natural resources.

According to an outline provided by legislative staff, more than $350 million will be spent on fire prevention and suppression efforts, including prescribed fires and other projects designed to reduce the vegetation growth that has fueled California’s most devastating fires. The package also includes $25 million for fortifying older homes that weren’t built using fire-resistance methods required during construction over the last decade.

Read more at https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-04-08/california-wildfire-prevention-536-million-newsom-lawmakers

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Los Angeles Superior Court ruling signals officials must consider California wildfire risks

Press Release, CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

In a major victory against a destructive development larger than Griffith Park, a judge has issued a ruling blocking Tejon Ranchcorp’s Centennial. The project would have put 57,000 residents on remote, fire-prone wildlands 65 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff found that the development’s environmental review failed to account for the increased wildfire risk the 12,000-acre project would pose to surrounding wildlands. The ruling sends a clear signal that elected officials across the state must consider the serious risks of building on wildfire-prone land.

Between 1964 and 2015, 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres occurred within five miles of the site, including four within the proposed project’s boundaries. Nearly all contemporary wildfires in California are caused by human sources such as power lines and electrical equipment, and development increases that threat.

“The court’s rejection of the Tejon development highlights the danger of building in high fire-risk areas,” said J.P. Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The science is clear that developments like Centennial will literally be built to burn, and our elected officials can’t continue to downplay these risks through inaccurate environmental reviews. This is a wake-up call for policymakers across California.”

The ruling found that the environmental review’s conclusion that “wildfire risk impacts outside of the project site will be reduced to less than significant is not supported by any analysis.” The court’s decision on Tuesday follows a recent Center report showing how construction in high fire-risk wildlands puts more people in harm’s way and contributes to dramatic increases in fire suppression costs. The California Attorney General recently challenged several developments in fire-prone areas, including one in Guenoc Valley, where a proposed project’s footprint includes portions of the recent LNU Complex Fire.

Read more at https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/judge-blocks-massive-tejon-ranchcorp-development-in-la-county-2021-04-08/

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Op-Ed: It’s about time California put the brakes on new housing developments in high-fire risk areas

Editorial Board, LOS ANGELES TIMES

One of the best ways to prevent wildfire destruction and death is to stop building houses in the likely path of the flames. Yet cities and counties across the state keep doing exactly that — approving sprawling new housing developments next to wildlands and marching property and people deeper into high-fire risk areas.

We know this development pattern is dangerous. Half of the buildings destroyed by wildfire in California over the last 30 years have been in developments on the urban fringe, next to wildlands (a type of geography that planners call the “wildland-urban interface”). For years, state leaders have wrung their hands over this contradiction, but demurred from taking action because local governments have control over land-use decisions.

Now, finally, someone in power has gotten off the sidelines. Among his final acts as state attorney general before becoming secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra has gone to court to try to block housing developments approved in high-fire risk areas.

In February, Becerra joined a lawsuit challenging the Guenoc Valley Project, which would put 1,400 houses, hotels, restaurants and shops on Lake County hills that have been burned by wildfires a dozen times, most recently last year. Before the project was approved, Becerra’s office had sent letters to Lake County officials warning that the project’s design would exacerbate wildfire risk and hinder evacuations during a fire.
Continue reading “Op-Ed: It’s about time California put the brakes on new housing developments in high-fire risk areas”

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, ForestsTags , ,

Priorities for Sonoma County’s vegetation management funds

Ted Lamm, Ethan Elkind, and Katie Segal, BERKELEY LAW

How would you spend $25 million to reduce wildfire risks? Sonoma County asked CLEE for guidance to answer this precise question. In 2017, the Sonoma Complex Fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the county, destroyed over 5,000 structures, and took two dozen lives. After reaching a legal settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric (whose equipment sparked the fires), Sonoma County allocated $25 million of the settlement funds to vegetation management–thinning and treatment of forests and vegetation–in order to reduce future fire risk and protect ecosystems and agriculture.

The County retained CLEE to gather expert input and prepare recommendations for how to allocate these funds most efficiently and effectively. Considering the long-term and recurring nature of vegetation management, the diversity of County landscapes and ecosystems, and the scale of the need relative to the amount of funds, a range of strategies will be required to leverage the funds into long-term investments and ensure sustainable practices. CLEE convened a group of statewide experts and a group of County stakeholders to identify spending priorities.

Our report outlines these priorities and offers specific strategies for the funds to achieve them, including:

      • Governance and coordination capacity to centralize county efforts, streamline permitting, gather data, and lead outreach initiatives, such as a new multi-agency working group with long-term dedicated staff.
      • Outreach and education capacity to spearhead communication with landowners, businesses, and residents on actions private individuals can take to reduce fire risk, including dollars specifically allocated for bilingual and equity-focused outreach.
      • Immediate vegetation management projects to increase resilience in high-risk zones in advance of the 2021 and 2022 fire seasons, with priority for shovel-ready projects, local organizations with track records of success, multi-benefit work, and other criteria.
      • Data, mapping, and planning efforts that expand on the County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan and other key data-collection initiatives to inform smart decision-making throughout the county.
      • Long-term financial sustainability instruments to generate recurring funds for vegetation management, such as a countywide financing district, new parcel or sales tax, or resilience bond.
      • Workforce development initiatives, like local college training programs to support high-quality local jobs and grow expertise and capacity in Sonoma.

      Read the report and full list of priorities here.

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Land UseTags , ,

County beginning hazard mitigation plan update

Zoe Strickland, THE HEALDSBURG TRIBUNE

Feb. 25 will mark the first in a series of public meetings being held to update Sonoma County’s hazard mitigation plan. The five-year update of the 2016 Sonoma County Local Hazard Mitigation Plan will have a more multi-jurisdictional approach.

According to Permit Sonoma’s website, the update will include Sonoma County; the cities of Santa Rosa, Cotati, Sonoma, Sebastopol, the town of Windsor; the Sonoma County Ag + Open Space District; the Timber Cove, North Sonoma Coast, Cloverdale, Sonoma County and Rancho Adobe fire districts; and both the Gold Ridge and Sonoma Resource Conservation Districts.

Hazard mitigation plans provide a profile of the community, a catalog of likely hazards — the county’s 2016 plan notes floods, fires, landslides and earthquakes — and outlines plans, goals and progress when it comes to mitigating possible hazards.

“The Hazard Mitigation Plan assesses hazard vulnerabilities and identifies mitigation actions the county will pursue in order to reduce the level of injury, property damage and community disruption that might otherwise result from such events,” according to Permit Sonoma. “In addition, adoption of the plan helps the county remain eligible for various types of pre and post disaster community assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state government.”

The plan update is being headed by a steering committee made up of community members who have emergency management knowledge. The public, however, is also encouraged to attend.

Read more at: https://www.sonomawest.com/the_healdsburg_tribune/news/county-beginning-hazard-mitigation-plan-update/article_f4b3ab02-733a-11eb-9cf5-8b9c205f2d90.html#utm_source=sonomawest.com&utm_campaign=%2Fnewsletters%2Fheadlines%2F%3F-dc%3D1614013221&utm_medium=email&utm_content=headline

Posted on Categories Forests, Land Use, Sustainable Living, TransportationTags , , , ,

What’s the future of Sonoma County’s fire ordinance?

Deborah Eppstein, Craig Harrison & Marylee Guinon, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

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.

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.
Continue reading “What’s the future of Sonoma County’s fire ordinance?”

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Op-Ed: A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees

Editorial Board, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Firestorms in the West have grown bigger and more destructive in recent years — and harder to escape. Massive and frenzied, they have overtaken people trying to outrun or outdrive them.

Gridlocked mountain roads prevented many Paradise residents from fleeing the Camp fire, which killed 85 people in 2018. This year, more than 30 people have died in the fires in California and Oregon, and again, in many cases, people were trying to escape fast-moving blazes.

There’s much work to be done on how we protect people amid a wildfire, including how and when we advise them to evacuate. But fire experts also are considering different ways to protect communities, and some of these ideas haven’t been given their full due as options for states that increasingly find themselves under siege.

One approach, seen in a bill proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), is to log more dead trees and dig more firebreaks, among other things. But it’s outmoded and environmentally problematic; environmental groups have attacked the bill for allowing the fast-tracking of logging permits, bypassing the normal review process, in areas far from any towns that could be threatened.

Beyond that, trying to prevent fires can lead to overgrown forests that set the stage for more catastrophic blazes. Rather than going down that road, or cutting trees and brush in order to make fires smaller and slower, the better, more scientifically based approach is to focus more on houses and less on trees.
Continue reading “Op-Ed: A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees”

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California’s looming wildfire threat requires a cleaner, more resilient electrical grid

Ted Lamm & Ethan Elkind, CALMATTERS

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to deal with a changing climate with its web of decades-old poles and wires.

As California communities confront the reality of emerging from coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, another inevitable crisis that also requires aggressive preventative action looms: wildfire season.

In the face of this persistent threat, we need aggressive integration of clean energy technologies to power a reliable and resilient electricity grid for our homes, health care systems, transportation networks and supply chains.

Californians are familiar with the ways that climate change is increasing our wildfire risk, with six of the top 10 most destructive fires in state history occurring in the past three years. California’s electrical grid stands in the middle of this increasingly complex predicament.

At least three of those fires were triggered by utility equipment, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which took 85 lives in the process of destroying 18,000 structures and the town of Paradise. 2019 brought widespread public safety power shut-offs and far less destructive fires throughout the state, but at the cost of new outage-related risks for vulnerable communities and residents – a trade-off we may be making for the next 10 years or more.

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to weather this changing climate. Today’s grid features a web of decades- and century-old poles and wires, even as the state obtains a record level of energy from cutting-edge solar and wind technology.
Continue reading “California’s looming wildfire threat requires a cleaner, more resilient electrical grid”

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Recent wildfires inspire builders to make homes more fire resistant

Matt Villano, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On a ridge above Geyserville, one new house stands alone in the burn zone.

The home, roughly 80% finished when the Kincade fire roared through the area in late October, is perfectly intact — not a single shingle out of place. Everything around it is black and charred.

Yes, firefighters beat back flames to protect the structure. But the home also saved itself.

Tempered windows withstood extreme temperatures and did not shatter. Fire-retardant siding made with cement stopped flames from overtaking the exterior. A metal roof prevented embers from penetrating the top. On top of this, a total of 100 feet of defensible space around the house minimized the likelihood that the place would catch fire.

In short, teams from Santa Rosa general contractor HybridBuild developed the 2,000-square-foot home to withstand a major wildfire and it did.

“The fire couldn’t take the house because of the upgrades,” said Tony Negri, co-owner of the company. “You could look at what happened and say, ‘They got lucky,’ and they did, but really it was just a case of some of these extra (innovations) working the way they were supposed to work.”

The Geyserville house is a perfect example of how careful construction and an emphasis on fire resilience can put homes in a better position to withstand the onslaught of a raging fire.

Put differently, as climate change and other, naturally occurring factors wreak havoc on Sonoma County ecosystems, the anecdote offers textbook examples for the kinds of features and construction methods that homes of the future likely will need as wildfires become a more regular part of our collective reality.

“Nature (will) always be in charge,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “We can no longer afford to armor our way out of risk with concrete, steel and bunkers. We need to respect nature and work with it.”

As Wick suggested, a key component to making homes more resilient is preparing for the worst.

For many developers, this means abiding by rules and regulations for building in what is known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI. (Contractors colloquially refer to this as woo-ey.)

These rules are laid out in Chapter 7A of the California Building Code. Currently, at least in Sonoma County, this means all new structures must be “built with exterior construction that will minimize the impact on life and property and help structure to resist the intrusion of flames and burning embers projected by a wildland fire and contributes to a reduction of losses.”

Contractors have responded by implementing several different tools and products to “harden” homes to fire. Negri’s company has turned to tempered glass windows, metal roofs and fiber cement siding. One particular project, a spacious new home under construction in downtown Healdsburg, features fiber cement siding.

Other firms have experimented with rammed earth construction, as well as Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) products such as Rastra blocks, which are made with foam, and Faswall blocks, which are made with wood chips and particles.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/specialsections/rebuildnorthbay/10484149-181/rebuilding-sonoma-county-making-the

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Greater wildfire risks prompt growth of electrical ‘microgrids’ to rely less on PG&E

Martin Espinoza, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In his standard blue jeans and unbuttoned flannel shirt, David Liebman could blend in with many of the young students walking to and from classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.

But Liebman, manager of energy and sustainability for the college district, has something bigger on his mind than class assignments and midterm projects.

Liebman, 27, is heading a $5 million electrical infrastructure project that addresses climate change and fundamentally will transform the way energy is distributed and used on campus.

Using the new solar arrays at the Santa Rosa campus, Liebman is coordinating the development of an electrical microgrid that could operate independently of PG&E during nearby wildfires, or when the escalating threats of fires in the age of climate change prompt the utility to temporarily turn off power.

“Unless we change the infrastructure that runs our society, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble because we won’t be able to adapt to the significant changes that are happening to both the environment and technology in general,” Liebman said.

Fueled by solar energy and equipped with battery storage and a complex control system, the SRJC project is a small part of a much larger movement environmental experts say could fundamentally flip the paradigm on energy usage here and across the country. Before, massive power plants were turned on to meet demand for electricity; now, microgrids could help do that with available renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal.

In Sonoma County, microgrid systems would allow key institutions such as hospitals, municipal utilities, a college campus and certain government agencies to continue to operate in the event of a natural disaster that interrupts PG&E’s electrical transmission and distribution.

Local interest in microgrids has heightened with the prospect of Pacific Gas & Electric shutting off power during times of high fire risk.

To provide a model for developing the mini-power networks, a microgrid laboratory has risen just west of the town of Sonoma, at the Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery. The multimillion-dollar microgrid — a testing ground for the latest renewable energy and storage and control technology — encircles 16 acres of vineyards, olive trees and fields of heirloom vegetables and fruit.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10027255-181/greater-wildfire-risks-prompt-growth