County General Plan build-out could heighten fire risk

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – As Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors approved a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, some supervisors questioned whether residential and road expansion impacts have been adequately addressed in the county’s General Plan. 

The new fire risks posed by expanding residential densities in timberlands were discussed as supervisors approved an update to the fire protection plan at their Feb.  5 meeting. 

The plan cites a 2018 state Strategic Fire Plan, which declares that “loss of life and structures as a direct or proximate result of wildland fires is at an all-time high.”

Changing climate is a suspected factor. And Supervisor Mike Wilson noted that one of the county plan’s recommendations is to carry out land use planning with fire risks in mind. 

‘This is significant’

Wilson highlighted the nexus between fire danger and the residential entitlements of the county’s General Plan. 

“We chose to principally permit residential development on every timber and ag parcel in the county, which is all of our resource lands,” he said. “And this has a development pattern consequence to it and we have to adapt to that consequence – this is significant.” 

The county is in the process of implementing the General Plan’s land use maps, which is proving to be controversial, and Wilson quoted the wildfire plan’s notation that 67 percent of the General Plan’s build-out will occur in high or very high fire hazard zones. 

Wilson questioned “whether that would be considered a significant impact that we didn’t necessarily consider as part of our environmental CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review.”  

Wilson also questioned whether the General Plan’s environmental review accounted for wildfire evacuation in the context of the increased residential densities in and near timberlands. 

The plan states that “evacuation vulnerability is considered very high for Humboldt County.” Wilson said that the county has “promoted planning processes that could push housing into areas of high vulnerability,” a situation intensified by climate change. 

Roads to danger

The issue of road-related risks was brought up by Supervisor Steven Madrone. He proposed using Measure Z and Measure O tax funds to step up roadside maintenance, with particular attention to the presence of fire-prone invasive plants. 

Later, Madrone said he wants to “add some strength to the whole land use planning component” with regard to fire risks and put it “front and center in our thinking” as the county implements the General Plan’s rezoning. 

Additional residential development can involve expanding the width of existing roads to allow emergency services access. Noting that, Madrone said road widening often includes removal of native plants that are resistant to fire. 

He added that with inadequate maintenance of roadside areas re-grown with invasive plants, “We’re literally taking a community and widening the road for fire safety and actually making that community more fire-prone.”

Reaction to risk

The wildfire protection plan’s list of risk factors includes “continued residential and commercial development in the wildland urban interface.” 

Climate change, “increasing fuel loads” and the spread of diseases such as sudden oak death are also listed as potential triggers of increased risk. 

It’s a situation seen statewide and recent catastrophic wildfires have highlighted it. The state is readying a response.  

“In the fire service, there’s a saying that timing is everything and we’re at a crossroads in California with wildland management and protection of our communities,” said Kurt McCray, chief of CalFire’s Humboldt/Del Norte unit chief during a public comment period.  

The state’s legislature, the governor’s office and CalFire are “working very quickly and aggressively on addressing the change in the fire trends in California,” McCray said. That includes a proposal to spend $1 billion over the next five years on wildland management and wildfire protection.

McCray said the county’s wildfire protection plan will “undoubtedly” give Humboldt an edge in gaining a piece of the funding.  

The plan was coordinated by county Natural Resources Planning Manager Cybelle Immitt, who outlined its contents. 

Included in the plan is a summary and detailed assessment of fire risks and recommended action plans for specific areas of the county. 

The plan was shaped by 14 public workshops held throughout the county in 2017 and Immitt said community involvement will continue to be important as the county strives to meet the plan’s goals. 

Those include working with agencies and residents to reduce causes of ignition, helping residents prepare for and survive wildfires, bolstering firefighting services and promoting “ecosystem restoration activities” such as fuels reduction and prescribed burns. 





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