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.”
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.
The successful legal challenges have emerged as a powerful new tactic for state government to control development in wildfire-prone areas — places where building decisions are typically made by local officials who also face pressure to provide affordable housing, economic development and tax revenues.
“A lot of people are wishing and hoping that wildfire risk wasn’t the new reality and haven’t quite adapted to the fact that it is,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose office joined private environmental organizations in two wildfire lawsuits in San Diego County, as well as the challenge in Lake County. Developers “are building projects based on planning and thinking that was cemented and used well before wildfire risk became so prevalent and so common and so real,” he said.
The lawsuits came after a change in 2018 to the California Environmental Quality Act that emphasized wildfire as a factor that must be considered during environmental reviews.
“We’re at a kind of inflection point between the legacy of the 20th century and the imperatives of the 21st century,” said Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at U.C.L.A. “No, you can’t just develop whatever you want to because you want to — that’s over. There’s no accountability in that over the long term.”
Despite the growing number of wildfires worsened by climate change in recent years, development in fire-prone areas has continued largely unabated, and not just in California. Across the United States, an estimated 99 million people in 2010 lived in areas where development runs up against wild land, according to the Agriculture Department.
fires destroyed hundreds of homes in the suburban sprawl near Boulder.