The State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection recently proposed new regulations that could drastically affect landowners in Santa Cruz County, more specifically, those impacted by the CZU Lightning Complex fires that burned in Northern California starting August 2020.
The proposed new rules are intended to create safety measures in case the impacted areas experience future fires similar to those seen in recent years. The focus is on creating new rules for communities that do not have adequate access roads, specifically one-way access and narrow roads, and those that do not meet steepness thresholds. Current proposals indicate a need for roads that are at least 14 feet wide and that have less than 20% grade. Those impacted include people who lost their homes in the recent fires, as well as those looking to develop or redevelop their land.
Given the geographical layout of Santa Cruz County, hundreds of homes could be affected. For example, the Santa Cruz Mountains are inundated with steep roads without extra room to build; in addition, dead-end roads stretch for miles. Homes within these areas would be drastically impacted, including those off of Last Chance Road, Whitehouse Canyon Road, Old Women’s Creek Road, and Bear Creek Road, to name a few.
At this time, it is uncertain how many parcels would be affected by the proposed rules. However, critics of the rules argue that those most impacted are likely those who lost their home to a recent fire and homeowners in more rural areas. Some even suggest that the rules may heighten the already severe housing problem witnessed in both Santa Cruz County and the State of California.
History of Regulations
Many of the existing fire-safe regulations monitored by the state were established in 1981 and have undergone limited modifications. Unfortunately, as a result of increased population in California and global warming, the state has witnessed an ongoing increase in wildfires, many stealing the homes of residents and creating a rising homeless problem within communities.
Former Governor Jerry Brown, however, passed a package of wildfire-related liability laws in 2018, prompting the current changes. SB 901 now requires “CAL FIRE to develop regulations for safety standards and fuel break setbacks for commercial and residential development in very high fire severity zones on or after July 1, 2021.”
CZU Lightning Complex Fire Survivors
The population most directly impacted by the proposed changes includes property owners who lost their homes to August’s CZU Lightning Complex fire, the largest fire in Santa Cruz history. The fire resulted in more than 86,500 acres being burned and 911 homes being destroyed in Santa Cruz County alone. Calls for maintaining and managing associated spot fires continued through December, until the fire was finally declared controlled.
Those residents who lost their homes during that time face immense hurdles to rebuilding if the proposed laws are passed. They would require roads to be upgraded and parcels to be reconfigured, making it expensive to rebuild. Critics such as Tracy Rhine, a legislative advocate with the Rural County Representatives of California, are speaking out against the unfairness of the new rules, pointing out that these property owners face harsh consequences for an event that was no fault of their own.
Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson, who has been acting as an advocate for locals and has actively been meeting with Board of Forestry members and Santa Cruz County Planning Department staff, and communicating with State Senator John Laird’s office on a draft of the fire rules, pointed out that “there’s a property rights issue … the ability to maintain and build on your property that was destroyed through no fault of yourself … we have to recognize that.”
Associations directly related to communities impacted by the fire, in addition to local and regional advocates, are requesting that the Forestry Board exempt property owners who lost their homes as a result of local fires and other natural disasters.
Recently, Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty spoke on the matter: “We’re hearing a lot of concern from residents on how this will impact their ability to rebuild, and right now we’re just doing our investigation to find out what’s likely to happen, and what regulations are likely to be adopted … Once we get clarity on that, we’ll do everything we can to amplify our residents’ concerns to the state.”
Edith Hannigan, a land use planning program manager with the Board of Forestry, also clarified that “the direction from the board is not that these rebuilds can’t ever happen, but rather that they can’t happen until there is some mitigation for the steepness or the narrowness of the roads.”
Worsening the Housing Crisis
Critics of the proposed new rules have also voiced their concerns about how the changes could intensify the already severe housing crisis in California. Restrictions would be placed on land development, isolating certain properties and labeling them as no longer buildable without land modifications. The intention of the restrictions is to stop or slow wildland fire, for example, by cultivating a buffer between high-risk areas.
McPherson spoke about the topic: “We don’t want to have a bigger crisis … the housing and homelessness crisis … we don’t want to make that more difficult here in Santa Cruz County; we have enough of our housing challenges as we speak.”
What to Expect
The proposed fire safety regulations are still being drafted. According to reports, the Board of Forestry is seeking public feedback and hosting workshops for officials and community members alike.
On March 22, the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection will host an information webinar titled “Special Board Meeting – Fire Safe Regulations.” Participation is open to the public, and interested parties can register on their website or by clicking this link.
“I’m just hoping we can get to a compromise to ensure that people can keep their property and rebuild on their properties and also do it in a more safe manner so that, should we ever, god forbid, have another fire … that these fire personnel have the access that they really need and deserve,” McPherson said. “Those people put themselves on the line when they come in, and they need to make sure they can get out, too.”