March 17, 2021
After the catastrophic North Bay Fires in 2017, every fire agency in Marin County was looking for ways to better protect the community. Mill Valley was the first City to adopt enhanced vegetation management requirements in its Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), which covers 75% of the City.
In early 2018, Deputy Chief Tom Welch brought 6 recommendations to the Mill Valley City Council to adapt to the changing wildfire environment and based on lessons learned from the catastrophic Sonoma/Napa County fires. Council approved the 6 initiatives, including the fire prevention ordinance, noting that they put the City on a path to improve the odds of survival for residential structures during a wildland fire and reducing and mitigating risks associated with community evacuation.
“The danger of a megafire is not just loss of life and property, but also loss of habitat and a catastrophic release of carbon into the atmosphere,” said Welch. “Council has directed committing significant time and resources to this effort over the past three years, and we will continue to adapt to the threat facing our communities of more violent and volatile wildfires.”
Mill Valley residents have long supported fire resiliency, going back to the 1929 Mill Valley Fire that decimated the town - burning 2500 acres and destroying 117 homes. Mill Valley residents overwhelmingly supported the creation of the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, (71% of Marin residents voted in support) which was formed in 2020 to lead multi-jurisdictional fire prevention projects.
On September 16, 2019, the Mill Valley City Council adopted the fire prevention ordinance, which clarifies the types of vegetation that will be considered fire hazardous and subject to removal and provides additional requirements for improving fire resistance of structures.
An anonymous group of local residents, calling itself the "Mill Valley Residents for the Protection of Wildlife" (MVRPW) filed a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenge against the City in October 2019, alleging the City should have performed a full environmental impact report (EIR) rather than claiming a categorical exemption. An EIR of this scale would likely take at least a year and could cost as much as $1 million to complete and would not bar future environmental challenges.
The City engaged in settlement talks with MVRPW representative John Overton and his attorneys to determine if there was a potential compromise that would avoid further expenditure of City funds on litigation and ensure that the City was able to enforce its vegetation management requirements that summer, especially considering the drought conditions the City is facing. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (www.drought.gov), 91% of California is in drought, and fire potential will likely intensify and expand given back-to-back dry years.
Under the terms of the settlement reached on March 4, 2021, the City has agreed to hold a public hearing regarding certain amendments to the vegetation management ordinance. The Council is not bound to adopt such amendments, but the City staff's recommendation will be to accept the offered amendments, which provide minor, non-substantive changes, including updated definitions, a new exception to the City's vegetation removal requirements for "well-maintained historical and ornamental plantings," and more detail regarding the appeals procedure. The new exception will be subject to the discretion of the Fire Chief.
"I feel comfortable that our community protection has not been lessened by this compromise," said Welch. “We will continue to work towards increased awareness to reduce human loss and property damage from wildfires, educating community members about the risks and their personal responsibility.”
The City also agreed to reimburse MVRPW for attorney's fees and costs in the amount of $200,000 and to designate $10,000 for grants to Mill Valley residents funding assistance for vegetation management. In return, conditioned on the Council adopting the revised ordinance, MVRPW agreed to not challenge the revised ordinance and to dismiss the action with prejudice, which means that they will not be able to refile the action.
As City Manager Piombo states, "We feel that this is an acceptable compromise to end a case that has kept its vegetation management ordinance in limbo for the past 16 months. The proposed amendments will allow the City to continue its efforts to increase ember resistance and reduce fire risk in the community and avoid any further expenditure of taxpayer money on litigation."
At a recent Council meeting, Mill Valley residents urged that the City take an even stronger stance to protect the community.
"We have heard loud and clear from the community that wildfire resilience remains a high priority," said Mayor Sashi McEntee. "Although $200,000 of our budget will now be diverted from fire prevention to cover this lawsuit, we remain committed to preventing loss of life and property from wildfire."
On March 15, Vice Mayor McCauley led an extensive discussion of our enhanced evacuation planning preparation, enabled by some groundbreaking research performed by Google on Mill Valley evacuation traffic patterns. “No matter where we live in Mill Valley, we share the desire for safety for our community,” Vice Mayor John McCauley said. “However, the threat of a major wildfire in our community is very real and calls for new, enhanced levels of action.”
Other Marin cities have followed suit with similar ordinances in the year following Mill Valley’s groundbreaking effort.
Since 2018, priority actions to mitigate the risk of wildfires have included:
Initiative 1 - Building Codes, Standards, and Structural Ignitability
Initiative 2 - Hazardous Fuel Reduction
Initiative 3 - Access and Evacuation Concepts
Initiative 4 - Public Education
Initiative 5 - Communications
Initiative 6 – Staff Training