In California, a New Fight to Stop Building in the Path of Fire
A proposed luxury development in hills already scarred by wildfire is raising questions about the continued push to build in areas at highest risk.
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By Sophie Kasakove
MIDDLETOWN, Calif. — When Pat Donley learned about the proposed 16,000-acre luxury development that would border her ranch in the burn-scarred hills of Northern California, her mind raced back to the terrifying hour she spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic while fleeing the Valley fire in 2015, as a barrage of flames advanced down either side of the road.
After that narrow escape, Ms. Donley and her husband moved from their gated subdivision to a place that at least offered a less crowded escape: a remote ranch off a windy, narrow road in the hilly outskirts of Middletown, Calif.
So the news five years later that as many as 4,000 new people could be living along that two-lane canyon road seemed to her like a plan destined for disaster.
“If they put all those people on the road, there’d just be no way we could get out — we probably couldn’t even get on the road,” Ms. Donley said. “We’d be trapped.”
In rural Lake County, an area north of the famed Napa and Sonoma Valleys that is known less for tourism than for poverty and unemployment, the new Guenoc Valley development — five resort hotels, a golf course, spas, polo fields and hundreds of villas arrayed around a historic vineyard — promised jobs and tax dollars.
It also promised more people in an area likely to see wildfire again, and soon. The development site has burned three times in the past seven years; at least two other fires have threatened nearby communities since 2019. Ms. Donley evacuated her new home in 2020, when the L.N.U. Lightning Complex fire tore through the Guenoc Valley project site, leaving patches of charred, leafless trees.
But critics of new development in wildfire-prone areas of California scored an important victory this month when a Superior Court judge blocked the Guenoc Valley development, concluding that thousands of new residents in the area could contribute to a deadly bottleneck during an evacuation.
The decision is the latest in a series of groundbreaking new legal rulings that are putting the brakes on development in the more remote areas of a state that has seen the two most destructive fires in its recorded history in the past five years.
In October, a San Diego judge struck down the approval of a community of more than 1,000 homes and businesses in that county’s dry eastern scrublands because of wildfire risk. In April, a Los Angeles judge overruled the county’s approval of a 19,300-home community in the fire-prone Tehachapi Mountains.
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