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Attorney General Releases Guidance for Analyzing Wildfire Impacts of New Development

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On October 11, the California Attorney General (AG) released guidance for complying with CEQA when analyzing and mitigating a proposed development project’s impacts on wildfire risk, emergency access, and evacuation. The guidance was born, in part, from the AG’s experience litigating projects in wildfire-prone areas (see Center for Biological Diversity v. County of Lake [2022]Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. County of San Diego [2021]). Agencies and practitioners have been using resultant case law to inform methodologies for impact analysis and mitigation in CEQA documents.

With this document, the AG formalizes its guidance for elements to consider in the baseline description, impact analysis for wildfire risk, evacuation and emergency access, and mitigation for significant impacts. In addition to the qualitative presentation of information, it emphasizes the use of modeling and other spatial and statistical analyses to assess wildfire risks to the extent feasible.

Baseline

Include information about existing conditions that may exacerbate or minimize wildfire impacts: fire-prone habitats and open space areas, fire history and fuels in the project area, existing available water supplies for fire suppression.

Impact Analysis – Wildfire Risk

Consider project density (impacts are expected to be more severe in low‑ to intermediate-density developments), project location in the landscape (a project’s influence on fire risk will be informed by expected wildfire behavior, which is driven by topography, fuel, climatic conditions, and fire weather), and water supply and infrastructure (explain existing fire suppression capabilities, including loss of water pressure and power during a fire).

Impact Analysis – Evacuation and Emergency Access

For projects in wildfire-prone areas that present an increased risk of ignition and/or evacuation impacts, evacuation modeling and planning should be considered and developed at the time of project review and approval, not deferred to a later stage of the development process. The guidance identifies suggested content for project-specific evacuation modeling and analysis. It also includes suggestions on how to consider resources (traffic analysis, evacuation plans) and consult with local fire officials to provide evidence in the impact analysis. Local jurisdictions are encouraged to develop significance thresholds for evacuation times. Additionally, the guidance identifies a suggested threshold for determining the significance of evacuation impacts based on consistency with existing planning documents.

 

Evacuation/Emergency Access Threshold
Would the project create an inconsistency with:

  1. an adopted emergency operations or evacuation plan;
  2. a safety element that has been updated per the requirements in Government Code sections 65302(g)(5) and 65302.15 to integrate wildfire and evacuation concerns; or
  3. recommendations developed by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection regarding the safety of subdivisions pursuant to Public Resources Code section 4290.5.

Mitigation

The AG guidance reminds practitioners of the importance of describing risk absent project design features and mitigation. It also presents a robust list of mitigation approaches to address wildfire risk, evacuation, and emergency access impacts.

Local Planning Guidance

Recent legislation requires local jurisdictions to proactively consider wildfire risk in their general planning processes to facilitate firesafe development:

  • SB 1241 (2012) requires local jurisdictions within state responsibility areas or very high fire hazard severity zones to address wildfire risk when updating their safety elements
  • SB 99 (2020) requires updated safety elements to identify residential developments in hazard areas that do not have at least two evacuation routes
  • AB 747 (2020) requires local jurisdictions to update their safety elements to address the capacity of evacuation routes under various emergency scenarios
  • AB 1409 (2021) requires that safety elements identify locations to which people can evacuate

In August 2022, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released guidance for complying with these requirements:

Published court decisions addressing wildfire and evacuation impact analyses include the following:

Any Questions?

Chris Mundhenk

Chris Mundhenk

Principal – Environmental
Heather Blair

Heather Blair

Principal – Environmental
Pat Angell

Pat Angell

Principal – Environmental

Service

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