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Green Building News

California Fires Prompt Fresh Questions About Development

There are no quick fixes for this complex problem, says a 31-year veteran of Cal Fire

The Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California, was one of the hardest hit areas in the wildfires of 2017. Critics complain that local and county officials make it too easy to rebuild in high-risk areas. (Photo: National Guard / Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cosse)

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.”

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Walter Ahlgrim | | #1

    California could end this problem tomorrow with 2 strokes of a pen.

    1 Announce they will make no effort to save or protect any home or land with less than 3 homes per acre.

    2 Allow the insurance companies to price each home in accordance with its own risks.

    Yes many homes would become almost worthless over night.

    As it is the whole nation unfairly taxed paying to try to put out every fire. Mother Nature made the fuel and she will burn it sooner or later it is only a question of when it will burn.

    The insurance law/rules now forces every property owner in the town to subsidize the fire risk of people that deliberately make bad choices.

    The people that choose to live below sea level or on the beaches and in the flood plains rely on similar subsidizes that just plain wrong.

    Walta

  2. Peter L | | #2

    Walter,

    I am not sure I understand your point. What does having less than 3 homes per acre have to do with fire fighting protection?

    I live in a rural area of the desert SW and my home is on 15 acres with juniper trees. I have taken steps to minimize wildfire risk. Concrete house walls, stucco exterior, metal roof, 50 feet of defensible space, no vegetation near home, easy road access to fire trucks, etc. Even had a firefighter come out to survey the area and they rendered it very defensible and well designed.

    So you are saying that if there ever was wildfire, that no effort should be made to protect a home like mine from the fire?

    In the California fires, many homes that burned were in dense packed subdivisions. The Chicago fire in 1871 showed how densely packed homes with little space between them can lead to out of control infernos. Building fire codes and advanced fire fighting techniques have made these types of city fires less likely. Although, if not for a fully staffed 24/7 fire fighting force on call, a city inferno can easily happen again.

    In large metro cities, even though wildfires are not a threat, fires do happen and it costs $1.9 billion dollars per year to keep the fire department operating in cities like New York. So even though $2 billion was spent NATIONWIDE in 2017 fighting wildfire, that amount is just a yearly expense to keep a major metro city fire department operating.

    People make "bad choices" that others pay for it ALL THE TIME. When someone works overtime shifts and gets into a vehicle and falls asleep and kills or seriously injuries someone else. That other person paid for that persons "bad choice" of working OT and driving home tired and sleepy and crashing. We subsidize other peoples bad choices all the time (overeating, smoking, drinking alcohol, drugs, promiscuous sex/STDs, texting and driving, building in earthquake/tornado/flood areas, etc). It's part of the human condition and that will not change.

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Walter,
    Allowing single-family homes to burn to the ground, as you suggest, every time there is a small kitchen fire that gets out of control, is certainly possible. But the neighbors who are standing in the yard next door, watching their neighbors' house burn down, won't be too happy with your proposed California policy. They'll be screaming, "Where are the fire trucks?"

    Without a fire department to respond, a fire in a single house can easily spread to an entire block. I might point out something else: a small kitchen fire that spreads to four or five houses could even start a wildfire where none existed.

  4. Andrew C | | #4

    Walter,
    I agree that people should have to pay the true costs for insurance based on where they choose to live. Subsidizing people who choose to build, repeatedly, in places that should be uninhabited, is an unfair tax on the people and undeserved profit for insurance companies.

  5. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #5

    At some point, ICC needs to include the recommendations from the IBHS, the RDI, and others who work and promote resilient designed buildings. We have Fire, tornadoes, earthquakes, hail, floods, hurricanes, wind storms, etc. just about in any state of the union, and we all pay, or subsidize, for disaster relief and insurance one way or another.
    But there are ways to avoid or minimize disaster in grand scale if our homes were designed to at least a set standard for all natural and man-made catastrophes that is affordable and easy to implement. It may not save everyone's home, but maybe a big majority.

  6. Peter L | | #6

    I would also like to add that 9 out of 10 fires that start on private or state forest land are caused by humans. Only 1 in 10 are caused by lightning. So the problem really stems down to human carelessness and/or arson. In the current Cali fires, most were started by an arsonist, who was subsequently arrested.

    Subsidization: As others have touched on. Your car insurance rates are based on where you live and include your own driving habits. You pay higher rates when the area you live in has bad drivers that crash a lot or there is a high crime rate where cars are stolen & broken into. You are subsidizing bad drivers and criminals by paying higher car insurance rates.

    Taking your point, that would mean if you car gets broken into, stolen or wrecked out, you are on your own. Fix your own car, you don't get reimbursed, because you chose to live and drive in an area that has a higher risk of damage/theft to a vehicle.

    There are ways to address the problem of wildfires and building destruction but it is not with draconian policies that "punish" people by letting their homes burn because they chose to live in a rural area. Just in the same way you wouldn't "punish" people in metro cities by letting criminals run rampant with civil disorder & anarchy because they chose to live in a densely populated city area.

    Rural areas don't require municipal police departments and rely on county sheriffs as the crime rate is very low. Their operating budgets are really low. Although metro cities require municipal police departments as the crime rates are high. Their operating budgets are very high. This government service is "subsidized" by higher taxes that the average person has to pay. Yet, people chose to live in large cities.

    That is what makes our country great. We can live in rural towns or densely populated cities. It's a choice each person makes. Their are pros and cons to each. Live and let live. Punishing people for choosing either location is wrong and uncivilized.

  7. John Clark | | #7

    Let insurance companies price accordingly w/out taxpayer subsidies. Insurance companies can team up with building scientists to arrive at a design which has acceptable levels of risk.

    Of course local and state govts will drag their feet on allowing any necessary changes because it might entail a loss of tax revenue.

  8. user-7078109 | | #8

    I lost a home in the Santa Rosa fires, and am rebuilding. I feel that the answer is to eliminate building materials that can burn for new construction. I'm talking about primarily building with concrete or steel. There are multiple building systems available, and they are generally stronger and better insulated than traditional wood construction.

    For Santa Rosa, another wave of the fire's effects will hit soon. California prevents insurance companies from cancelling policies for one year after a natural disaster. That one year anniversary is coming, and many of us will likely have our policies cancelled or drastically increased. A virtually fire proof home is one negotiating tool in trying to manage insurance costs.

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