Citing the increasing prevalence of wildfires, the California Attorney General (AG) has issued guidance designed to help lead agencies comply with CEQA when considering whether to approve projects in wildfire-prone areas. Although the guidance does not impose any additional requirements on local governments or alter any laws or regulations, it does apprise local governments of important considerations for CEQA thresholds of significance, impact analyses, and mitigation related to wildfire hazards.
Analyzing Project Impact on Wildfire Risks
According to the AG, an EIR’s discussion of existing conditions should include information about open space areas and habitats within the project area that may be fire prone as well as fire history and fuels on the site, and the availability of existing water supplies for fire-fighting.
The guidance states that development that brings more people into or near flammable wildlands “leads to more frequent, intense, destructive, costly and dangerous wildfires.” As such, a lead agency should analyze a number of variables in its impact analysis, including the project’s density, its location in the landscape, and water supply and infrastructure for firefighting within the site. Though higher residential density is suggested to reduce fire risks, the guidance also states that additional population is a primary cause of such risks.
The AG notes that some EIRs have concluded that conversion of some wildland vegetation into paved development reduces or does not increase fire risk. However, the guidance affirmatively states that this is “contrary to existing evidence, and the well-accepted understanding that the introduction of people is the fundamental driver of increased wildfire risk.”
Lead agencies are encouraged to develop thresholds of significance that identify any increase in wildfire risk as a significant impact, or establish a threshold by which some increase would not be considered significant, so long as such a threshold is supported by substantial evidence. The AG also recommends modeling fire scenarios as to enable quantification of wildfire risks for this purpose.
Analyzing Impacts on Evacuation and Emergency Access
The guidance notes that new development in wildfire risk areas often has the potential to negatively impact the evacuation of both project residents and existing populations, while, at the same time, hampering emergency responders’ access to the area. Accordingly, the guidance recommends that an EIR evaluate these impacts both during construction and over the life of the project. It also states that evacuation modeling should be conducted at the project review and approval stages, and should take account of roadway capacity, timing and travel time for evacuation, emergency access points, proximity and capacity of existing fire services as well as alternative and/or existing evacuation plans.
While the guidance endorses the use of existing resources and analyses to evaluate emergency access impacts, these should be augmented as necessary to include updated and project-specific information. The guidance also warns that shelter-in-place plans should not be relied upon in lieu of mitigating a project’s evacuation impacts.
The guidance suggests that thresholds of significance for evacuation impacts reflect community wide goals and standards, particularly where an increase in evacuation times is found to be a less-than-significant impact. Not only should local agencies consider past successful evacuations in establishing thresholds, but thresholds should also consider whether the project creates inconsistencies with an adopted emergency evacuation plan, general plan safety element, or California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection recommendations regarding subdivisions.
Mitigating Wildfire Risks
Finally, the guidance recommends a number of useful mitigation measures that can help avoid or reduce a project’s wildfire impacts. Some examples of potential mitigation measures and design alternatives offered in the guidance are: relying on higher density infill development where possible and minimizing low-density development and sprawl; decreasing the border length with undeveloped wildlands; creating buffer zones of defensible space to be maintained over time; installing low-flammability landscaping; undergrounding power lines; fire-hardening structures and communications; placing projects near fire services and evacuation routes; and maintaining the water storage/supply on-site. In all situations, these mitigation measures should be combined and tailored to the specifics of the project.
The AG’s guidance provides some helpful information for wildfire analyses in CEQA documents. While it does not carry the force of law, the AG’s voice is definitely listened to by the Courts. A failure to meet its suggested standards is not necessarily legal error, and complying with its recommendations in no way insulates an analysis from legal challenge. Moreover, the “modelling” proposals for fire scenarios and evacuation are not currently widely used by agencies and or consultants.
Nonetheless, the guidance does provide some helpful best practices, and will likely be a persuasive resource for both practitioners and courts.
A copy of Best Practices for Analyzing and Mitigating Wildfire Impacts of Development Projects Under the California Environmental Quality Act by the Office of the Attorney General is available online at: https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/attachments/press-docs/Wildfire%20guidance%20final%20%283%29.pdf