There are almost too many wildfires burning in California to keep track of. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned since mid-July, more than 300,000 acres in the Mendocino Complex Fire alone. More than 1,000 homes have been lost; six firefighters have died.
The widespread destruction is once again raising questions about where residential development should be allowed and whether people who have lost their homes to fire should be permitted to rebuild in risky areas.
Andrea Tuttle, the former director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that county supervisors and municipal officials continue to approve subdivisions in high-risk areas because development increases the local tax base and makes community growth possible, according to a report published by E&E’s Climate Wire.
But it is federal and state governments that pay for firefighting when the time comes even though they have little authority over development decisions.
In an article published by The Mercury News, Stephen M. Strader of Villanova University, called this “the expanding bull’s eye effect.”
“Cities are moving into regions where there were no people before,” he told the newspaper. “People and wildfires are coming together more often.”
A study that Strader published earlier this year pointed to a ten-fold increase in the number of homes in the western U.S. at risk from wildfires since 1940 — from 607,000 to 6.7 million today.
Jon Keeley, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center, called it a “people problem.”
“What’s changing is not the fires themselves but the fact that we have more and more people at risk,” he told The Mercury News.
Building in the same risky places
Bloomberg reported in March that after wildfires last fall destroyed thousands of homes in California, local officials issued permits allowing homes to be rebuilt without updating building codes. In some cases, zoning rules were suspended so people could build even bigger homes than the ones that burned down.
To encourage people to rebuild, state officials proposed that residents who lost their homes be protected from increases in insurance premiums. Local officials are reluctant to tell people they will not be allowed to replace the homes they lost.
Efforts may have been well-intentioned, Bloomberg’s report said, but the upshot is that state and federal taxpayers ultimately bear the financial risks that come with another fire.
State and federal agencies spent more than $2 billion fighting wildfires in 2017 and 2018 with insurance payouts topping $11 billion, Bloomberg said,. But an estimated 1 million new homes will be built in high-risk fire zones by 2050, setting off a new round of loss and reconstruction.
Fire-resistant building techniques don’t always work
California is not without tools to make buildings in wildfire-prone areas less likely to burn. There already are code requirements for new houses in high-risk wildland-urban interface (WUI) zones that are designed to lower fire risks.
The chief culprit in residential losses are not flames but the burning embers that advance in front of a fire. Codes require the elimination of many crevices where burning embers can accumulate. Eaves must be sealed, for example, and double-pane windows with tempered glass may be required. Vegetation around the house should be trimmed or eliminated.
All of these measures help improve the odds. But sometimes they aren’t enough.
An article published last month by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting detailed the experience of Lars and Ulla Tandrup to illustrate this problem. Last year, the couple completed a house overlooking Santa Rosa, only 15 minutes from the mall in the center of town.
Their 4,200-square-foot dream house incorporated the best fire-prevention tactics available — screens over the gutters, vents to keep burning embers out, a fireproof roof, minimal vegetation around the house, fire-safe composite decking.
The Tubbs Fire proved all of that wasn’t enough. The house burned to the ground.
Reveal’s investigation, in fact, found that 56 of the 64 homes built to stricter fire standards in the Tubbs Fire footprint after 2008 were destroyed.
Code changes take a lot of time
Building codes in fire zones can be strengthened, but changes take a lot of time, says David Shew, the former staff chief for planning and risk analysis at Cal Fire.
“The process of changing code language that is then enacted is a very cumbersome and time-consuming process,” he said in a telephone interview. “It obviously takes several years. We all know anecdotally that there is more that can be done, the codes do need to change, but the actual process of testing those procedures and new materials and details for structures, that’s going to take some time for that to be conclusively accepted and built into the codes. In the meantime, people are desperate to rebuild and have a home again.”
In advance of tougher building codes, does California have the political will to tell people they can’t build houses in high-risk areas?
“No,” he said. “I think there’s very little appetite or capacity from elected officials to dictate to anyone that this is too dangerous, you can’t build there.
“If you get to the overall question, it boils down to, ‘Have we built in places we shouldn’t have?’ And the answer to that is, unequivocally, absolutely,” he continued. “We have structures existing in areas where they really shouldn’t be.”
But taking the next step and barring new construction or rebuilding in those areas is tantamount to claiming eminent domain, Shew said. The problem is certainly not unique to California fire zones. It crops up in high-risk flood plains and coastal areas, for instances, where homeowners want to rebuild but probably shouldn’t. A government edict barring someone from building on land they own is the same as condemning the property.
Changes that would reduce risk
Shew, whose career with Cal Fire spanned 31 years, said two other factors have the potential to reduce fire losses: more conscientious maintenance by homeowners, and more accurate risk analysis by insurance companies.
Assuming a builder does a meticulous job of following fire codes and uses the best of materials, there is still the question of how well the house will be maintained. If it’s 20 or 30 years before a wildfire strikes, will the homeowner be diligent in making sure the house stays in top shape?
“That’s the intangible factor that nobody can really regulate,” Shew said. “There has to be, for lack of a better term, a major paradigm shift in people’s understanding and acceptance of the risk they are taking on by building in these areas.”
On the insurance front, Shew said, risk analysis can be overly broad. A single risk level could be assigned to an entire zip code or area code. Individual or neighborhood efforts to make houses safer may not be recognized, and therefore go unrewarded with lower insurance rates. But if there were more accurate insurance models, at what Shew called the “parcel scale,” homeowners would see a return on their efforts.
Climate change and forestry
Environmentalists point to prolonged drought and higher temperatures as evidence that climate change is making fire conditions more explosive.
Yet Climate Wire noted this week that only a small fraction of news stories about California’s current wildfire outbreak mention a connection to climate change. Fewer than 10% of the stories in California newspapers made the connection.
And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said last weekend during a visit to California that climate change has nothing to do with the fires. Instead, he blamed environmentalists for making logging and forest management more difficult.
“America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change,” Zinke told reporters. “Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat, and yet they are willing to burn it up.”
Forestry practices absolutely have a role in wildfire prevention, Shew said, but it’s also undeniable that fire seasons are much longer and more intense than they used to be. A fire season that extended into December was a rare event when he began as a seasonal firefighter three decades ago. Now it’s the norm, and climate change is one of the reasons why.
“Forestry is absolutely one of the components,” he said, “but it turns my stomach to hear anyone say climate has nothing to do with this. It has everything to do with this… Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant to me, because it is happening. It’s quite obvious.”