Lawmakers Consider Restricting Building in Fire-Prone Areas

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

California lawmakers are expected to vote today on a measure that would restrict building in fire-prone areas. The bill's author says it's an effort to address the steady increase of people moving to former wildlands. But KPCC's Julie Small says opponents claim it would simply shut down development in many parts of the state.

Julie Small: Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency, estimates that in the last decade, the number of homes built in high fire risk areas of California has grown by 20 percent. Carroll Wills with the California Professional Firefighters says that's increased the risks to homeowners and to firefighters.

Carroll Wills: We've seen several incidents where firefighters have been killed or injured trying to protect homes that were essentially inaccessible.

Small: Wills says too many housing developments fail to give firefighters the tools they need to battle fires. They don't have access roads that are wide enough, or places where firetrucks can turn around.

Wills: You need to make sure that there's a way in, and a way out, for fire protection, so that firefighters can get somewhere easily, and get out easily.

Small: That's why firefighters support a new bill by Assemblyman Dave Jones. The Sacramento Democrat says his legislation requires counties to decide whether a developer has a good enough fire protection plan, before approving a project.

Dave Jones: If there's gonna be development in these areas, let's make sure that we have the fire personnel, and the equipment, and the resources to fight the fire. If we don't, then we better make sure we get it before we put more homes and lives in harm's way.

Small: But builders say the Jones bill is a thinly-disguised way to shut down development altogether.

Tim Coyle: The requirements aren't spelled out.

Small: Tim Coyle with the California Building Industry Association says the bill's ambiguous language exposes developers and counties to lawsuits. Specifically, the measure says developers must show they've provided "sufficient fire protection" for a project.

Coyle: Well, nobody knows what "sufficient" means. And when you're in the world of homebuilding, and you have ambiguities like that in the law, it's common for those that don't really care to see the housing built at all to use those ambiguities to challenge the development. And in the case of a county that has to take responsibility for approving the project, they don't want to take that risk.

Small: Coyle says the state's current fire safety laws are working. He points to housing developments in Orange and San Diego counties that survived last year's firestorm. The Building Industry Association's Tim Coyle says California should duplicate those developments instead of putting the brakes on new ones.