The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research Publishes Two New Fire Hazard Planning Advisories

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) recently published two fire hazard planning guidance documents – the Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory and the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Planning Guide. The Technical Advisory and Planning Guide, summarized below, are intended to help communities assess fire risks and incorporate effective fire hazard policies into local planning documents.

Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory

The Technical Advisory provides an overview of fire hazard risks in California; summarizes relevant federal, state, and local fire regulations and policies; provides fire hazard planning guidance; and lists example fire policies for planning documents, such as general plans.

When it comes to fire hazard planning, the Technical Advisory recommends a three-step approach: (1) outreach and engagement with community and agency groups; (2) preparation of a fire hazard and risk assessment; and (3) development of goals, objectives, policies, and implementation programs to address fire hazards and reduce associated risks. Step 1, Outreach and Engagement should involve engaging tribal governments, residents, business owners, vulnerable community representatives, and other interested parties early in the planning process. Step 2, Fire Hazard and Risk Assessment Preparation will involve data collection such as fire history, topographic characteristics, fuel characteristics, climate and weather, and post-fire hazards so the risk assessment can sufficiently explain existing and future fire-related conditions. The Risk Assessment will also determine the current and projected wildfire risk posed to the area. Finally, Step 3, Policy Development ultimately results in the creation of goals and policies that can be included in general plan elements to address the previously identified fire hazards. For reference, the Technical Advisory ends with a compilation of example fire hazard policies that could be included in general plans.

WUI Planning Guide

The Planning Guide identifies various regulatory and planning tools available to cities and counties to implement fire hazard planning policies.

First, local jurisdictions should be aware of the various state-level regulations addressing fire safety. The California Building Code Standards establish minimum building design and construction standards for buildings in defined WUI areas. The California Fire Code establishes minimum requirements for fire hazard protection, including vegetation and fuel management and defensible space. The State Fire Safe Regulations provide minimum fire safety standards related to emergency access, road standards, water supply reserves, and fuel breaks. Local jurisdictions shall enforce these state standards or adopt their own, more-stringent safety measures.

In addition to implementing state standards, all cities and counties in California located within a designated state responsibility area (SRA) or very high fire hazard severity zone (VHFHSZ) are required to address wildfire hazards and risks in their general plan safety elements. Wildfire hazard policies and programs may also be addressed in land use, housing, transportation, and mobility elements of general plans. Cities and counties can also include wildfire hazard policies and programs in local planning documents such as specific plans, community plans, master plans, and hazard mitigation plans. Further, local jurisdictions can address wildfire hazards through the following avenues:

  • Subdivision Ordinances. Local jurisdictions can implement fire safety measures through subdivision design regulations or as requirements prior to tentative subdivision map or parcel map approval.
  • Zoning Ordinances. Communities can adopt use restrictions or development standards for identified fire hazard zones via zoning ordinances. For example, San Bernardino County adopted a Fire Safety Overlay Zone which requires additional development standards for buildings in these areas.
  • Landscaping, Defensible Space, & Hazard Abatement Ordinances. Local communities can adopt landscaping, defensible space, or hazardous vegetation management ordinances.
  • Post-Disaster Recovery Ordinances. Cities or counties can adopt ordinances that address temporary housing needs, economic development, and other forms of relief for those affected by fire events.
  • Development Agreements. Cities or counties can require more stringent fire management conditions through development agreements with private property owners.
  • Joint Power Agreements. Agreements between agencies is another way to implement fire hazard policies. For example, Marin County along with local districts established the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority that is tasked with planning, financing, implementing, managing, owning, and operating a countywide agency to prevent and mitigate wildfires in Marin County.
  • Special Taxes and Assessment Districts. Local jurisdictions can set up dedicated sources of funding for wildfire prevention such as fire mitigation, infrastructure improvements, and increase fire services.
  • Home and Defensible Space Assistance Voluntary Programs. Local jurisdictions can plan and implement voluntary programs to help existing homes meet state fire safety standards, such as the building code requirements.
  • Regional Wildfire Management Programs. Cities and counties can implement coordinated wildfire resilience programs. For example, the Tahoe Fire & Fuels Team addresses fire-resilient landscapes in the entire Lake Tahoe Basin area.
  • Growth Management and Land Acquisition Tools. Local jurisdictions can implement strategies to direct development away from wildfire hazard areas. For example, the Town of Windsor Growth Control Ordinance was adopted to establish an urban growth boundary that aims to preserve open space and monitor the town’s residential development.

Overall, OPR’s Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory and WUI Planning Guide are two helpful resources for local jurisdictions or for any person wishing to better understand how fire safety policies and programs can be developed and implemented. The full reports can be found at the following links: OPR Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory and Wildland-Urban Interface Planning Guide: Examples and Best Practices for California Communities.

[This alert does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by viewing or responding to this alert.  Legal counsel should be sought for answers to specific legal questions.]