For Immediate Release, March 12, 2007
Jonathan Evans, Center for Biological Diversity, (213) 598-1466
Rich Fairbanks, The Wilderness Society, (951) 659-8126
Peter Jorris, San Bernardino County Audubon Society, (909) 867-3536
Steve Farrell, The Sierra Club, (310) 362 8410
San Bernardino County Is Ignoring Burning Questions on Global Warming
Development Plan Increases Fire Threats for Communities
San Bernardino, Calif.— Conservationists in the inland empire and the Attorney General of California have urged San Bernardino County to address critical issues of global warming in its “General Plan” for the 21st century. The General Plan is the county’s blueprint for growth and development over the next 25 years. Despite questions raised about how the county will plan for the threats posed by global warming and fire, the Board of Supervisors is poised to approve a long-range plan without addressing how global warming and increased wildland fires threaten communities.
Research released last month by the International Panel on Climate Change shows that global warming is “unequivocal.” There is a 90-percent certainty that human activities have contributed to a warming planet.
According to Rich Fairbanks, forest and fire program associate with The Wilderness Society, “We now have some pretty solid science telling us that fires are getting tougher to suppress; it would be irresponsible not to prepare for this change in the fire environment.” Global warming is partly responsible for increasing large wildfires across the West, according to recent research from the Scripps Institute and the University of California. The length of the active wildfire season has increased by 78 days, and the average burn time has increased by 29 days.
Increased wildfires will hit Californians in both their homes and their pocketbooks; the 2003 Old Fire, for example, destroyed over 1,100 homes at a cost of almost $50 million. San Bernardino County continues to experience high population growth in mountain and foothill communities adjacent to national forests. Global warming-related fire increases will cost the most in areas adjacent to forests that are close to major metropolitan areas, according to the California Climate Change Center.
Federal agencies have challenged local governments to carry their weight in defending communities. Because of increasing costs of federal firefighting efforts and the failure of communities to regulate growth next to national forests, the Forest Service recommends assigning more financial responsibility to local governments. “Many conflicts, future problems and planning inconsistencies in the mountain region could be avoided by adjusting mountain zoning to the realities of the hazards of the forest environment, fire and public safety,” said Drew Feldmann of San Bernardino County Audubon Society.
The recognized threat to the community posed by wildfire didn’t sway the county to protect communities in fire-prone areas from irresponsible development. The minimum 30-foot setback in the county’s building codes is fraught with exceptions because setbacks do not apply to a broad range of flammable structures including fences, decks, awnings, propane tanks, and garages. Research shows that distances of 65 to 130 feet are necessary to reduce the threat of wildland fire on residential structures.
Loopholes in the building codes allow development in hazardous-fire safety overlays in order to provide greater “design flexibility” for the developer. No guidelines are provided to determine whether design flexibility will actually reduce fire hazards. “The County needs to quit permitting the construction of these risky subdivisions,” said Fairbanks. “Building wood-frame houses in brush-filled canyons is setting the stage for disaster.”
Mountain residents have expressed concerns about the adequacy of their roads for evacuation during fires with an over 50-percent population increase. Suggestions to use computer modeling programs that evaluate mountain evacuation scenarios were simply dismissed by the county.
This concerns Steve Farrell of the Sierra Club. “The county admits they aren't using accurate analysis on our everyday mountain traffic,” said Farrell. “Worse, they've dismissed requests to evaluate the capacity of our emergency evacuation routes. How can we rely on the excellent people in our public agencies to plan responsibly if the county is unwilling to provide them with meaningful data?”
After years spent developing the General Plan, the county is scheduled to vote on it on March 13, 2007. “San Bernardino County can’t blind itself to the reality of global warming in our changing world,” said Jonathan Evans of the Center for Biological Diversity. “A moratorium on growth in fire-hazard areas is needed until these issues are addressed. Allowing rampant growth alongside increased wildfires and limited infrastructure is a disaster waiting to happen.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 35,000 members dedicated to the protection of imperiled species and habitat. www.biologicaldiversity.org .
The Wilderness Society brings to bear scientific expertise, analysis and bold advocacy to save, protect and restore America's wilderness areas. www.wilderness.org .
The San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society advocates for protection of wildlife and habitat throughout Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. www.sbvas.org .
The Sierra Club is dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the nation's natural resources. www.sierraclub.org