Very High Fire Severity Zones and SB 9

Samuel Schneider
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January 12, 2022
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minute read
#SB9
Very High Fire Severity Zones and SB 9

Introduction

At Homestead, we get emails nearly every day from homeowners in a High or Very High Fire Severity Zone (V/HFSZ) who are interested in developing their property with SB 9. Many of these emails are from property owners who have used our free SB 9 Eligibility Search Tool, only to discover that their home is in a high fire zone and therefore ineligible for SB 9 development. People often become even more confused when they refer to the text of Senate Bill 9 and find no mention of fire severity zones whatsoever.

To help clear up the confusion, we’ve compiled this list of our most frequently asked questions on the subject. In the following blog post, we’ll address:

  • What fire severity zones are and why they exist
  • What SB 9 actually says about fire severity zones
  • Whether your local fire severity zone can impact your property’s eligibility for SB 9 development

To see if your property meets the legal requirements for SB 9 lot split or duplex development, use Homestead’s free SB 9 Eligibility Search Tool

What are fire severity zones?

Due to dry climate and other environmental factors, many areas of California are prone to wildfires. Following the steady increase in devastating fires over recent years, California law now requires the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to assign fire hazard scores throughout the state.

The scores are based on the potential severity of wildfires in the area, and the three classifications are medium, high, and very high. The zones are determined by many factors, including fuel sources (vegetation), terrain, weather patterns, and previous history of fires in the region. The fire severity zones are then rendered as maps, which cities use when approving real estate development.

Local Agencies

Local agencies have the authority to review and alter the state’s Fire Severity Zone maps, although they cannot reduce or remove areas. Municipalities are able to add additional areas of high and very high fire risk to the state map, if they can provide sufficient evidence to support the claims.

Our SB 9 eligibility tool is based on the statewide maps for State and Local Responsibility Areas, but these state maps don’t currently include the additions made by local agencies. Updated aren’t currently publicly available from the Department of Forestry (CALFIRE), so we haven’t been able to incorporate them into our tool. However, you can usually find the updated local fire zone maps on your town’s government website.

Why do we need fire severity zones?

The main goal is to prevent destructive wildfires, which cost hundreds of lives and destroy tens of thousands of properties in California every year. Classifying areas according to their wildfire risk allows governments to require special measures for fire safety—like fireproofing, sprinkler systems, and designated access roads for fire engines—in areas where fire threat levels are highest.

What does SB 9 law actually say about fire severity zones?

You may have heard that SB 9 law prohibits lot splits on properties located within certain fire hazard severity zones, and that’s (mostly) true. But if you go looking for mentions of fire severity zones in the law’s text, you won’t find any. That’s because Senate Bill 9 doesn’t directly reference high fire severity zones.

SB 9 does, however, reference California Government Code Title 7 on Planning and Land Use.

Essentially, SB 9 states that properties are eligible for development as long as they meet all of the criteria laid out in the bill. Part of the criteria is that it meets the requirements of a certain section of state government code, which restricts housing construction in certain locations. Among those restricted locations are high and very high fire severity zones. Therefore, although it’s not detailed within the text of Senate Bill 9, the HFSZ restriction does apply to SB 9 developments.

Can I use SB 9 if my property is in a high fire severity zone?

If your home is located in a high or very high fire severity zone, you may still be able to use SB 9.
The state government code goes on to say that exemptions can be made for sites that have adopted sufficient fire hazard mitigation measures.
So if your proposed development meets specific fire safety requirements, your property may be eligible for SB 9.

Conclusion

We hope you have a better understanding of fire severity zones, why they exist, and how they can limit SB 9 development.

To determine whether your property is eligible for SB, use our free SB 9 Eligibility Search Tool. If our search tool determines that it’s ineligible due to its fire severity zone, research your area’s fire safety regulations. It’s possible that you can still pursue SB 9 development in a high fire severity zone if your building meets certain fire mitigation standards. These enhanced fire safety measures will likely make development more expensive, but that’s the cost of building in a fire-prone area. The ultimate goal is safety, and the peace of mind is worth the extra expense.

If you’re still unclear about high fire severity zones and SB 9, contact Homestead! We can help you understand your local regulations and whether your property is eligible for development under SB 9.