California’s wildfire season now spans nearly the full calendar year. For California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) practitioners, this means the enhanced scrutiny of wildfire and evacuation impact discussions in CEQA documents is an emerging issue that compels more robust CEQA evaluation than has traditionally been afforded to this topic. This new emphasis comes from revisions to the CEQA Guidelines (the “Guidelines”), trial court filings, and appellate court decisions. This article is devoted to identifying useful resource documents that can assist local agency planners and CEQA consultants in addressing project review and impact analysis. This blog reviews the CEQA Guidelines and recent caselaw evaluating wildfire impact analyses, and includes additional planning resources for CEQA practitioners.

I. Wildfire and the CEQA Guidelines

The Guidelines address fire risk in two separate Appendix G analyses: sections IX and XX:

Section IX: Hazards and Hazardous Materials, part of the Guidelines for many years, asks the following relevant questions regarding whether a proposal would:

f) Impair implementation of or physically interfere with an adopted emergency response plan or emergency evacuation plan; or

g) Expose people or structures, either directly or indirectly, to a significant risk of loss, injury or death involving wildland fires.

Section XX: Wildfire, added to the Guidelines in 2018, asks additional wildfire-related questions aimed at proposals located in or near state responsibility areas or lands classified as very high fire hazard severity zones. The section asks whether the project would:

a) Substantially impair an adopted emergency response plan or emergency evacuation plan;

b) Due to slope, prevailing winds, and other factors, exacerbate wildfire risks, and thereby expose project occupants to, pollutant concentrations from a wildfire or the uncontrolled spread of a wildfire;

c) Require the installation or maintenance of associated infrastructure (such as roads, fuel breaks, emergency water sources, power lines, or other utilities) that may exacerbate fire risk or that may result in temporary or ongoing impacts to the environment; or

d) Expose people or structures to significant risks, including downslope or downstream flooding or landslides, as a result of runoff, post-fire slope instability, or drainage changes.

Additionally, the Guidelines indirectly address fire-related risk in the mandatory findings of significance (Guidelines §15065(a)(4)), which provide for a mandatory finding  when “(t)he environmental effects of a project will cause substantial adverse effects on human beings, either directly or indirectly.”

II. Recent Caselaw on Wildfire Issues

Clews Land & Livestock, LLC. v. City of San Diego (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161

Clews involved a mitigated negative declaration (“MND”) approved for the construction of a school atop a bluff in San Diego’s Carmel Valley. Clews Land and Livestock, LLC. (“Clews”) owned a horse ranch adjacent to the proposed location of Cal Coast Academy that was approved by the city (together, “Respondents”). The area is within a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” The Clews alleged an environmental impact report (“EIR”) should have been performed under CEQA because the project exacerbated fire hazards, among other concerns. Specifically, Clews argued the proposal interfered with the ability of people and animals at the ranch to evacuate in the event of a wildfire. The Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed, reasoning that the city’s fire marshal found the project complied with city fire codes, and the project did not introduce any new fire hazards that did not already exist

Clews’ argument was primarily based on a report prepared by its fire safety hazard expert, who posed several questions about fire safety that the consultant alleged went unanswered in the MND. Among the topics the expert addressed were the school’s evacuation plan, and first responder response times and capabilities. Clews’ expert contended the main roadway would be inadequate to support the safe evacuation of the school in addition to the animals and people at the ranch in the event of a wildfire. The appellate court, however, said the expert’s comments were “conclusory, speculative or otherwise unsupported,” and that Clews generally failed to present a fair argument that the addition of more people in the area would have caused significant environmental impacts.

The appellate court concluded that Clews failed to show a fair argument existed that the project would materially affect evacuation routes in the area. It said the city was not required to prepare an EIR because the fire risk in the area, while high generally, was not increased due to the existence of the new project. In fact, the court pointed out that Respondents, by incorporating a new water line and fire hydrant line, appeared to increase fire safety in the area. It was dissuaded by Clews’ contention that the main road was inadequate to satisfy a successful evacuation of the occupants and animals at both properties. The court pointed out that an alternative fire evacuation route existed along a nearby dirt road. It also relied on the fact that the school intended to only operate part of the year and intended to close on red flag days out of an abundance of caution. Additionally, the court reasoned that the inherent difficulty in evacuating the ranch—comprising 135 horses, 15 cattle, ranch personnel, clients and trailers—existed prior to the school proposal, and thus, would not be significantly affected by the school.

Newtown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (2021) 65 Cal.App.5th 771

Newtown Preservation Society involved a bridge replacement project in El Dorado County. The County of El Dorado (“County”) approved an MND stating that the project’s impacts would be less than significant. A local community group, Newtown Preservation Society (“Newtown”), sued the County, contending an EIR should have been prepared instead. Newtown alleged substantial evidence existed that pointed toward significant environmental impacts related to resident safety and emergency evacuations in the event of a wildfire.

The MND acknowledged that bridge construction would force the closure of a main road, forcing traffic to detour onto another road, which was a longer route out of the area. The MND provided mitigation measures including the creation of a temporary evacuation route downstream from the new bridge by acquiring a temporary easement over a property near the bridge. The MND concluded that the completed project, as mitigated, would not expose people or structures to new or increased significant risk of loss, injury, or death involving wildland fires.

Newtown purported to offer substantial evidence, which comprised of residents’ comments. One of the statements came from a retired CalFire aerial firefighter who contended that the proposal would block one of the primary escape routes from the canyon for up to two fire seasons. The Third District Court of Appeal found Newtown failed to provide any facts related to how the firefighter was an expert in ground evacuation routes. It cited Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino, 1 Cal.App.5th 677, 690-691 (2016), which concluded a lay person’s opinion based on technical information that requires expertise does not qualify as substantial evidence.

The appellate court concluded residents’ statements regarding existing threats of wildfire and individual sentiments related to experiences with past wildfire were insufficient to constitute substantial evidence needed to require an EIR under CEQA. While expert opinion substantiated by fact will normally satisfy as substantial evidence, the court concluded the residents’ comments lacked factual foundation and failed to show how the alternative evacuation plan included in the MND would fail to sufficiently mitigate impacts on safety.

Save the El Dorado Ditch v. El Dorado Irrigation Dist. (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 239

Save the El Dorado Ditch (“Appellant”) challenged the approval of an EIR by the El Dorado Irrigation District (“EID”) for a water pipeline project. Among Appellants’ allegations was a contention that EID failed to adequately analyze the impacts of the project on firefighting water supplies, thereby increasing the risks associated with wildfire. The Third District Court of Appeal, however, concluded the EIR was sufficient, as Appellants failed to present substantial evidence to the contrary.

EID sought to replace approximately three miles of an unlined earthen ditch system with a buried water transmission pipeline proposed to be located either beneath the ditch itself or beneath a berm located alongside the ditch. However, EID instead approved an alternative to the project, which essentially abandoned EID’s use of the ditch altogether in favor of most of the pipeline being placed under a nearby roadway.

Appellants sued, alleging EID’s approval of the alternative project violated CEQA because, by abandoning the ditch, EID would also be abandoning a water source for firefighters to utilize in the event of wildfire. Appellants contended the EIR was deficient because it discussed only construction-related firefighting risks and disregarded contentions regarding the loss of the ditch water for firefighting purposes.

The draft EIR noted the alternative project would have similar impacts to wildland fire risk as the initial proposal. The analysis concluded fire hazards in the project area would be unaffected because the proposal did not create a fire hazard. The draft EIR stated that the ditch’s water supply is not part of the local CalFire unit’s strategic plan for fighting wildfire in the area.

Several public comments were submitted during the comment period concerned with the alleged removal of a water source used as a firefighting tool. The final EIR directed at least one commenter to a wildfire protection-related master response that stated that the ditch is not a firefighting resource, and thus, there were no significant impacts to be mitigated. The appellate court concluded EID’s response to the comments in the final EIR was sufficient.

League to Save Lake Tahoe Mountain v. County of Placer (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 63

In October 2016, the Placer County Board of Supervisors certified an EIR and approved a specific plan for a project involving lands in a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” as classified by CalFire. The specific plan provided for development of up 1,360 dwelling units and up to 6.6 acres of commercial use. Within this area, the County of Placer (“County”) maintained an evacuation plan, the Placer Operational Area East Side Emergency Evacuation Plan. The project opponents (“League”) filed suit, challenging the less-than-significant impact analysis conclusion in the EIR as it pertained to interference with an evacuation plan, among other issues. The trial court determined that the fire/evacuation analysis did not comply with CEQA. The developer appealed on this issue (other issues were appealed by the developer, as well as the project opponents), and the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the hazards analysis, and the conclusion of a less-than-significant impact, complied with CEQA.

To put this appellate court decision into context, the Guidelines, as it pertains to wildfire, were amended in 2018, so the decision relied upon the prior version of the Guidelines. The EIR considered the Guidelines as they existed pre-2018, using the following threshold of significance:  the project’s impact would be significant if the project would “impair implementation of or physically interfere with an adopted emergency response plan or emergency evacuation plan.” The draft EIR concluded that the impact would be less than significant, based on several factors:

  • The project included emergency access;
  • The project’s incremental traffic increase would be insufficient to interfere with the use of the main highway under the County’s evacuation plan or otherwise modify any existing evacuation routes;
  • The project included an emergency preparedness and evacuation plan, coordinated with the County’s plan and the closest fire district. The plan included a requirement for later project EIRs to require the homeowner’s association (“HOA”)(prior to a specified development threshold) to construct a shelter-in-place amenity; and
  • The cumulative effects of this project and others were not cumulatively considerable.

In response to public comments on the draft, the County expanded the discussion of this issue.  The master response in the final EIR discussed the emergency plan in greater detail focusing on the implementation of existing regulations, including defensible space, fuel maintenance, structural and infrastructure requirements and building code requirements. The plan would also impose requirements on water supply and flow, emergency access, evacuation signage, public education and communication, forestry management, strategies to address onsite hazards and development restrictions. The final EIR also reviewed a study performed by a traffic consultant, evaluating how long evacuation would take assuming maximum occupancy, during the summer months, a peak time for traffic. The study concluded that project evacuation (existing plus project) would be 1.3 hours, and 1.5 hours under cumulative conditions. The final EIR noted that any project would add evacuation time, but that this did not necessarily generate a safety risk. Emergency personnel take into consideration the time necessary for evacuation when determining when and where to issue evacuation orders.

The master response also addressed the comment complaining of a lack of modeled traffic events during an emergency event. The final EIR noted the significant number of different hypothetical fire events influenced by humidity levels, wind direction, and fuel loading. The EIR noted that any one model would be speculative and not representative of actual conditions on the ground.  Given those constraints, an evaluation, such as the one performed, which looked at total time to exit, was a reasonable metric to apply.

The appellate court concluded that the record included substantial evidence to support the less-than-significant conclusion, noting the following:

  • Nothing in the project or cumulative conditions would prevent or interfere with the County evacuation plan;
  • The project would include two additional evacuation access routes for a total of three;
  • The project included internal access roads so that every parcel had two routes for ingress and egress;
  • In reviewing the traffic consultant’s study, the County implicitly found that 1.3 and 1.5 hours for evacuation were reasonable;
  • The project would not significantly increase response times from the nearby fire district.
  • Between impact fees and financial contributions through the development Agreement (“DA”), the project would contribute to help fund two additional firefighter positions;
  • The final EIR provided a reasonable response and explanation regarding the traffic model. EIRs are not required to engage in speculation;
  • The County was not required to use its standard significance thresholds for traffic (note: this EIR evolved prior to the CEQA change to vehicle miles traveled (VMT) analysis), and the EIR adequately disclosed the basis for the different metric applied by the County; and
  • Although the project’s emergency plan contained many measures unrelated to evacuation, these measures (e.g. vegetation control) would reduce the risk of fire or the spread of fire which would otherwise lead to an evacuation event.

Based upon these considerations, the appellate court concluded that substantial evidence supported the conclusion that the project’s impacts to an adopted evacuation plan were less than significant.

III. Wildfire Resource Documents

  • CalFire publishes Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps for all regions in California, which can be located here.
  • In an unpublished appellate decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeal viewed favorably the lead agency’s evacuation analysis and the corresponding EIR analysis.
  • Here are links to the evacuation analysis and EIR analysis that formed the basis for the Court of Appeal to reverse the trial court in League to Save Tahoe Mountain, discussed above.
  • Recently, the California Building Industry Association submitted a study and comments to Cal Fire for the agency’s consideration in drafting new fire risk regulations for development. This study supports the conclusion that new master plan communities face reduced risk compared to older existing developed areas due to, among other design features, update fire codes for new construction, inclusion of secondary access, and vegetation management.

William Abbott is Of Counsel and Garrett Bergthold is a Law Clerk at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.