This impending state regulation could have huge implications for fire safety and development

Changes to the state development standards have sparked a heated debate.|

Coalition of fire experts: We have major concerns

The tension between development and safety in fire-prone areas is a hot-button issue in Northern California and my inbox.

A major factor that extends beyond a proposed project’s property lines is how new businesses and more people affect everyone’s ability to evacuate when the next big fire sparks.

Just last month, a judge blocked Lake County’s plans for a new luxury resort that failed to convincingly take into account how an extra 4,000 people on the roads might impact a fire evacuation in the area.

So, for today’s column, I want to focus on the state fire regulations going through a revamp that could dictate the landscape, literally, for years to come.

It’s a complex issue, which means I’m going to focus on just one piece of it -- a piece that has raised alarms for some fire professionals.

Since 1991, there have been baseline safety standards for development in fire-prone areas managed by the state. As California faced increased wildfire threat, the legislature in 2018 expanded these rules -- the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection’s minimum fire safe regulations -- to very high fire hazard areas overseen by local jurisdictions, too.

This triggered a general makeover for the 30-year-old regulations that has led to 18 months of fierce debate and landed in a place that, according to a number of fire experts, weakens, rather than strengthens, safety standards.

The big fear: It could jeopardize safe escape from wildfires in the future.

“These regulations fail to provide adequate standards or State oversight and enforcement to ensure the safety of firefighters and civilians for firefighting and evacuation,” a group of wildfire professionals wrote about the latest draft to the Board of Forestry in a January letter.

Of particular concern are proposed changes to rules affecting the conditions and specifications of existing roads. Your eyes probably glossed over reading that sentence, but bear with me because the devil really is in the details.

Under current standards, new construction in the designated fire-prone areas is only allowed on dead-end roads less than a mile long and roads that are at least 20 feet wide (to allow safe passage for fleeing residents and responding fire trucks).

The latest draft of the new regulations would lower the threshold for development to 14-foot roads and eliminate the limit on dead-end road length all together. (None of these rules apply to post-fire rebuilds or roads used only for mining, agriculture or timber.)

“It is a significant reduction,” says David Hillman, retired CalFire deputy director, who cautions against the notion that it’s easy for cars to just pull over when passing on narrower roads.

“You add a fire environment to that same situation, you've got blind panic. You've got engines trying to get into the fire, and people running for their lives to come out. That’s when it gets bad.”

“If you have a road that is any less than 20 feet wide, it's nearly impossible to get fire trucks going one way and people coming the other direction to get out safely,” he adds.

Hillman, who spent 38 years at CalFire and helped develop the original standards in the early 1990s, notes those exact sticky situations are what led to setting the standards in the first place.

To Hillman, the current situation presents “a real conflict.”

“In one hand, the governor is spending a significant amount of money to bolster his firefighting forces, which I applaud actively,” he told me, “but on the other hand, his Board of Forestry is proposing to reduce the safety standards of those firefighters’ ability to go in and suppress the fire.”

Indeed, nightmare traffic jams during evacuations from wildfires in recent years underscore the deadly consequences of inadequate escape options.

The change would only apply to existing roads, and the rules for development on new roads would actually be stricter, with dead-end roads limited to a half-mile, for example.

But, when thinking about the implications for evacuation, experts point out the majority of new development happens on existing roads or on new roads that rely on existing roads.

Small changes like these can make a big difference as evidenced by the months-long back and forth over the details. A first draft of the new regulations, which drew, in part, from recommendations by fire chiefs around the state, actually strengthened the current road standards, but it faced staunch protest from other stakeholders, including some local officials, developers, and such groups as the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) and the California State Association of Counties (CSAC).

For those in favor of relaxing regulations, the state’s desperate need for housing and more even economic development must be factored in.

“It's about balancing state priorities,” says RCRC’s senior policy advocate, Tracy Rhine, who points out that there is a big difference between a luxury resort and an extra residential property or two and that standards should be flexible enough to reflect that.

Hillman isn’t convinced by the affordable housing argument.

“I just don't see how reducing safety standards in the wildlands of California has any place in making that happen,” he tells me. “Let's face it, California fires aren't going to get any better with climate change...I fought a lot of fires in Santa Rosa, and I never saw any fires during my career that were as catastrophic as the ones in the last five years.”

Rhine, though, argues for the consideration of alternative methods to ensuring safe evacuations that aren’t as cumbersome and costly as changing road widths to allow for new development.

“I think it needs to be a holistic conversation,” Rhine told me. “There are different paths to the top of the mountain.” While RCRC and CSAC have been pleased with some of the changes in the most recent iteration of the rules, the organizations sent the Board of Forestry a letter last month with remaining concerns.

The Board of Forestry is evidently feeling the pressure from both sides. Indeed, everyone from state legislators to environmental groups to the California Insurance Commissioner have weighed in on either strengthening or relaxing the regulations.

One thing that everyone recognizes is the potential long-lasting consequences of these regulations.

“The impact won't be dramatic or significant initially, but down the road, it will be a big deal,” Hillman warns, and by then, he fears, it will be too late. “We'll have firefighters in 20 years going, ‘How in the heck did we let this happen?’ And they’re going to look back to 2022 and say, ‘Well, this is where.’”

Readers can find the most recent draft of the state minimum fire safe regulations from December 2021 on the Board of Forestry’s website at

The board will once again be discussing further changes to the rules at its March 1 and March 2 meetings, and there will likely be further opportunity for the public to weigh in. Readers also can reach out to their local and state legislators.

“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

Marisa Endicott

“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat

Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.

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