Development + Wildfire
How well is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) addressing development when it comes to wildfire risk?
California has endured devastating fire seasons over the past few years, with billions of dollars of damages, thousands of homes lost, and dozens dead. Increasing development in the state's wildland-urban interface, landscapes more likely to burn, is one key driver of state’s fire crisis. Wildland-urban interface development in high-fire risk areas can put people and property in harm’s way and can increase the risk of ignitions of fires. This kind of wildland-urban interface development can also make it harder to restore fire to the landscape, a critical step to reducing fire hazards in California.
Current California law does not significantly deter development in high fire hazard areas.
Local governments regulate land-use, and some may have incentives to allow greater wildland-urban interface development. The California Environmental Quality Act, (or CEQA) requires review and mitigation of the environmental impacts of new development projects, but it may not provide an adequate response to wildland-urban interface development. A 2015 California Supreme Court case limited the scope of CEQA review to the impacts caused by a project on the environment, rather than the impacts of the environment on a project. Much of the potential harm posed by fire to wildland-urban interface development falls in the latter category.
In some places, most residential development sited in high fire hazard areas has limited environmental review.
Some 80% of the proposed and approved development in unincorporated San Diego County is sited in a Very High- or High-Risk fire hazard zone. The County approved most housing developments using streamlined CEQA review processes, even though most units are located in the high-risk fire zones. Of the 13 development projects in San Diego county fire zones, only two had an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). We did find some denials in San Diego County of major subdivisions on the grounds that the proposed project would exacerbate fire risk.
Our data indicates California’s housing and climate policy goals are not yet well aligned.
The state faces a housing shortage. A policy of no development in high fire hazard areas will put large swaths of the state off-limits to development at at a time when we need more housing supply. But development in the high-risk fire zones also puts future residents at risk, and may contribute to landscape-level risks of fire that jeopardize existing and future residents as well. Our data indicates that CEQA and local land-use regulation inadequately address these risks.
Balancing the goals of reducing fire risk and increasing housing production suggests policy needs to accelerate increased housing development in low fire hazard urban infill areas and support more regional-level planning and guidance on how local governments should plan for fire hazards. Amendments to the CEQA guidelines in 2019 may help with this issue. Those amendments call for considering the impacts of residential development exacerbating fire risk, particularly in the Safety Element of the planning process. What remains challenging is how to address housing supply needs while also allowing for prescribed burns.
You can read more about what we found on this topic here.