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Riverside County Fights Fire With Zoning

Riverside County is moving toward adopting restrictive zoning and even acquiring private property in high fire hazard areas.

The county is considering the fire-safety measures at the same time that representatives of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Safety (CDF) are conducting a statewide tour to discuss new fire hazard maps. Those maps cover only areas for which CDF has primary responsibility, but the maps for Riverside County make clear that much of western and central county is fire-prone, and many high fire hazard zones extend right to the borders of fast-growing cities.

In early July, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors accepted a report from a county task force spearheaded by Supervisor Bob Buster and county Fire Chief John Hawkins, a CDF employee. The report calls for updating the county general plan and adopting zoning to address fire safety. The report also recommends the county "acquire lands in developing communities to both act as greenbelts and buffers to high fire hazard areas."

Buster said county supervisors have long recognized that some areas are fire-prone, but decision-makers have not had adequate maps and fire hazard analysis in front of them when making development determinations.

"This is an attempt to give a clear emphasis. In the past, it [fire safety] has always been one consideration," Buster explained.

Riverside and some other counties have certain building and landscaping standards for fire hazard areas, but planning practices have not necessarily accounted for fire hazards. Buster envisions a fire hazard overlay zone that is similar to zoning for a 100-year floodplain in which little or no development is permitted. The general plan, which the county is beginning to update, is the proper place for this consideration, he said.

"One of the fundamental reasons for a general plan is public safety," said Buster.

The county formed the task force in response to an October 2006 fire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters attempting to protect a house in Twin Pines, in the San Jacinto Mountains.

The state fire hazard severity zone maps may be eye opening to planners, developers and landowners. Some of the most fire-prone areas are also some of the fastest growing, including western and central Riverside County, San Diego County, and western Placer County. The maps are available on the CDF website. The department is scheduled to adopt the maps before year's end.

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