Assessing Cumulative Development Impacts on Fire Services

A recent focus in San Diego County on assessing fire services based on the cumulative impacts of proposed large developments may start to be seen elsewhere in California.

Development of large solar farms in San Diego’s rural eastern area prompted resource agencies to ask for more comprehensive fire service assessments, said Michael Huff, Dudek’s fire protection planning practice manager and author of two cumulative impact studies.

While renewable energy developments sparked the interest, resource agencies want to understand how large development of any type cumulatively will impact fire services, Huff said.

“Local agencies recognize fire services are getting stretched in rural areas with different land use applications, but the studies also can indicate that the existing services are under-utilized and can absorb the additional demands.”

Huff said renewable energy development has introduced new factors into these assessments.

“We now consider whether aerial fire retardant drops will damage turbines or panels, and what level of training and special project features fire fighters need to work in and around energized wind and solar facilities,” Huff said.

Huff’s studies assessed cumulative impacts in more depth than traditional project EIRs. While no regulations exist to require these studies in San Diego County, he said fire agencies wanted to get ahead of the curve. The developer-funded studies benefit both local agencies and the renewable developers by:

  • producing an excellent understanding of whether a local fire agency has staff, resources and training to handle the project,
  • providing insight on how the developer can guide fire mitigation funds for most effective use, and
  • strengthening the EIR and accompanying cumulative analysis.

Huff said there are three commonly used baselines for “standards of cover” for fire protection planning: insurance service offices (ISOs) whose findings impact premiums; the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for response times and effective fighting force deployment; and the county general plan for acceptable travel times based on land use type.

Huff said the large development, cumulative studies assessment focuses on the following areas

  • Fire risk in the area,
  • Particular ignition risks from the type development (solar, wind, residential, commercial),
  • Unique challenges for protecting and responding to the facility (response times to a relatively non-combustible solar site can be longer than to a residential community), and
  • The fire agency’s resources and capabilities (station location, staffing, travel time; ‘weight of response’ in terms of number of engines and fire fighters needed).

“We measure and assess all the elements to define what level of service best fits the type of proposed development,” he said. “The results can be very useful to fire agencies. As an example, a fire station with only wildlands staff and equipment in the proximity of a residential and commercial development project would not be well-suited to response to significant structural fire.”