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CalFire briefs Fire Safe Council on state regulation changes

“Since we’ve had these big fires like the one in Santa Rosa and the Camp Fire in Paradise, the legislature is putting out lots of regulations,” said CalFire Captain Shane Vargas at the February meeting of the Plumas County Fire Safe Council.

Vargas spoke to a packed audience and distributed a 12-page handout containing updates to State Responsibility Area Fire Safe Regulations issued by the California State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Cautioning everyone to view the official version in the California Code of Regulations online at govt.westlaw.com/calregs, the fire captain said CalFire has aligned its fire safe regulations with fire codes, vehicle codes and other resources.

“CalFire has the ultimate authority to enforce these and will coordinate with local fire departments and counties,” he explained. “Any exceptions must be approved by CalFire.”

Major change is coming

By July 2021, Vargas explained, the fire safe regulations will be revised and he said a big change is coming.

“The major changes will affect very high fire zones and include many changes to wind zones and wind models,” Vargas noted. “We will see legislation emphasizing prevention and it will include (addressing) fuel information and a lot of other things. These zones are expected to grow, not lessen. Education and outreach will be offered, too.”

One member of the audience spoke up on behalf of small, local fire districts that must “operate on a shoestring budget.” He expressed a hope that while state regulators are prioritizing programs and equipment for California, could they please consider helping the fire districts, too?

Vargas accepted the suggestion and said he’s not in a position to make those decisions, but he would pass the request along.

Materials and home hardening

Legislative changes for building materials and “home hardening” are also coming soon, the fire captain said.

Beginning with a brand new program in 2020, CalFire will work with local jurisdictions on a mandate to identify and map all residential subdivisions of 30 homes or more, and then work with the jurisdictions on mitigation. There may be grant funds to help, Vargas said.

Technical advisory needed

Jason Christian with the Plumas Corporation’s Board Of Directors, an energy economist and Portola-area District 1 candidate for the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, was in the audience. He advised the meeting that these coming changes serve to highlight his recommendation to establish a regional technical advisory committee.

Such a group, Christian explained, is needed to deal with “critical shortages of an infrastructure necessary to deal with tree removal. We all need to deal with the safe recovery of a healthy forest.”

Christian proposed the Fire Safe Council should partner in an effort to create a regional technical advisory committee to build expertise needed locally.

“This is one of the really critical watersheds in California,” he told the group. “It’s time to go big.”

Legislation to watch

Sue McCourt, a fire prevention specialist with the Plumas County Office of Emergency Services, also commented about forthcoming legislation.

She said it seems like there are “about a million assembly bills and senate bills out there right now.”

She recommended interested persons check California Governor Gavin Newsom’s website regularly for information and updates. One bill McCourt found especially interesting to follow is Sen. Kamala Harris’ SB 2882, the Wildfire Defense Act, because it may establish community wildfire grants and more.

SRA Fire Safe Regulations Highlights of Changes

(Community) Greenbelts

Subdivisions and other developments, which propose greenbelts as part of the development plan, shall locate said greenbelts strategically as a separation between wildland fuels and structures. The locations shall be approved by the local authority having jurisdiction and may be consistent with the CalFire Unit Fire Management Plan or Contract County Fire Plan.

Gate Entrances

Road and driveway gate entrances (whether public or private) shall (provide an) unobstructed vertical clearance of 13 feet, 6 inches.

Grades

For new construction only, beginning Jan. 1, 2020, grades for roads and driveways may exceed 16 percent but not exceed 20 percent, with approval from the local authority having jurisdiction and mitigations to provide for the same practical effect.

Road Signs/Building Numbers

Newly constructed or approved roads must be identified by a name or number through a consistent system that provides for sequenced or patterned numbering and/or nonduplicative naming within each local jurisdiction. This section does not require any entity to rename or renumber existing roads, nor shall a road providing access only to a single commercial or industrial occupancy require naming or numbering.

Road Surfaces

Driveways, road surfaces and “driveway structures” must be designed and maintained to support at least 40,000 lbs.

Road Width

For roads and driveways, whether public or private (unless exempted), vertical clearances shall conform to the requirements in California Vehicle Code section 35250. All driveways must be constructed to provide 13 feet, 6 inches of unobstructed vertical clearance.

Setback for Structure Defensible Space

A) For new construction, beginning Jan. 1, 2020, all parcels shall provide a minimum 30-foot setback for all buildings/structures (except those under 100 square feet in size) from all property lines and/or the center of the road.

Previously, this only applied to parcels of one-plus acres. Now, from 1/1/20 onward, it applies to all parcels.

B) When a 30-foot setback is not possible for practical reasons, which may include but are not limited to parcel dimensions or size, topographic limitations or other easements, the local jurisdiction shall provide for the same practical effect.

In addition, same-practical-effect options may include, but are not limited to, noncombustible block walls or fences; five feet of noncombustible material horizontally around the structure; installing hardscape landscaping or reducing exposed windows on the side of the structure with less than a 30-foot setback; or additional structure hardening such as that required in the California Building Code.

Plumas County representatives at the Fire Safe Council meeting acknowledged they will “look hard” at this requirement for new construction and work with CalFire Capt. Shane Vargas.

C) Structures constructed in the State Responsibility Area (SRA) are required to comply with the defensible space regulations in Title 14; Natural Resources Division 1.5; Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection Chapter 7; Fire Protection Subchapter 3; Fire Hazard.

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