(TNS) - Even as fires rage across California, thousands of new homes are being built deeper into our flammable foothills and forests, as lethal as they are lovely.
A recent surge in subdivisions in high-risk wildlands is putting more of us in harm’s way, say experts. For millennia, wildfires just burned trees; now they’re claiming homes, with heirlooms, pools, family photos, pets, cars and precious lives.
“It’s the ‘expanding bull’s eye’ effect,” said geographer Stephen M. Strader of Villanova University, who tracks population growth in high-risk areas. “Cities are moving into regions where there were no people before. People and wildfires are coming together more often.”
His major new analysis, published this spring in the journal Natural Hazards, found a 1,000 percent increase in the number of western U.S. homes at risk from wildfire over the past 50 years – from about 607,000 in 1940 to 6.7 million in 2010.
Northern California has hotspots of high growth in risky areas, according to his data, with new home construction in pockets of once-rural Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and North Bay counties — but especially the Sierra Foothills, a northern stretch of the Sacramento Valley and the Mendocino and Lake County region, near Clearlake, where the River Fire now rages.
“This is a people problem,” said Jon Keeley, a fire scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center in Sequoia National Park. “What’s changing is not the fires themselves but the fact that we have more and more people at risk.”
Tomorrow’s tinderboxes can be seen all over the Bay Area — from the new multi-million dollar dream homes packed along the edges of San Jose’s Almaden Quicksilver County Park and Mount Diablo State Park to older residences, both modest and opulent, on peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Oakland and Berkeley hills.
Faced with an overwhelming maze of roads, stairs and homes on the flanks of Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley officials recently painted bright blue evacuation logos on the pavement. Their fatalistic warning: “Be prepared to evacuate on foot.”
About one-third of Californians live in areas where homes co-mingle with wildlands, called the wildland-urban interface. The definition is broad; it includes, for example, the entire city of Chico.
While it might seem as if California’s wildfires are increasing, new research by Keeley shows that it is not so.
But they are far more destructive, according to CalFire. Nine of the 10 most expensive fires in California history occurred in the past 20 years.
A big reason why: It’s harder to do controlled burns — one of the most effective fire suppression techniques — near residential areas, due to smoke concerns. Until the 1970’s, fire suppression tended to minimize fire spread.
“If homes are sprinkled through the landscape, you take that key tool off the table,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with UC’s Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources.
And as we develop rural areas, we’re also more likely to ignite fires. In early California history, lightning was the major cause of wildfires. Now humans are the dominant source of fires, due to downed power lines, smoking, sparks from equipment and more.
“It’s not all arson — it’s everything else we do,” said geographer Jacquelyn Chase of CSU-Chico.
The Carr Fire burning in Shasta County was started by a single spark from a towed trailer on a road in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. It then quickly raced into high-end new residential subdivisions such as Lake Redding Estates, where it destroyed 65 upscale homes.
Last year’s Tubbs Fire, triggered by a downed power line in rural Sonoma County, sprinted across the hillside luxury enclave of Fountaingrove, destroying 1,519 homes. The former ranchland, developed over the past three decades as a community for local CEOs, attorneys, doctors, judges and wine industry executives, has burned to the ground twice in 53 years. Amid controversy, city officials have adopted a full-speed-ahead approach to rebuilding, prioritizing their building permits, waiving fees and broadening staff authority to approve permits swiftly, according to the local newspaper, the Press Democrat.
The deadly 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, which started in a back yard on Buckingham Boulevard, consumed 2.5 square miles of mostly residential neighborhoods, claiming 25 lives and almost 3,500 homes. Fires had ravaged the same area three times earlier in the century. New homes there are safer, but they’re also far grander. And complacency has settled in, with dangerous brush accumulating.
Far-flung homes create a special challenge for fire fighters, said Kurt Henke, former chief of the Sacramento Metro Fire Protection District. If a fire breaks out in the kitchen of a downtown home, an entire firefighting force can be on the scene within six to seven minutes, he said.
But it takes much longer – from 15 minutes to an hour, maybe more – to assemble the team of engines, bulldozers and air support needed to fend off a raging wildfire that threatens a subdivision on a rural edge of a city, he said. It may take hours for more distant fire departments to arrive.
“When you’re more remote from the core resources, we have a very tough time providing efficient and effective fire support in a timely manner,” said Henke, who works with a coalition of major fire departments to create a statewide network that deploys firefighters in advance of big fires.
When homes and lives are at risk, the costs of suppression surge. Last year, CalFire’s fire-fighting costs marked an eight-fold increase since the 1990s. And damages are greater. Napa and Sonoma are estimated to have suffered more than $8 billion in insured losses in the 2017 fires — the costliest wildfire disaster in California’s recorded history.
Five decades ago, the footprint of Sonoma County’s 1964 Hanley Fire mirrored last year’s Tubbs Fire, said Keeley. But nobody died and only 84 structures were destroyed. In contrast, the Tubbs Fire killed 22 people and incinerated more than 5,643 structures.
While climate change contributes to the problem, it’s not a major cause, he said.
“The number one driver is people,” said Keeley. “People have to be put somewhere, and we’ve put them in wildland areas.”
Land planners don’t understand the basics of fire behavior, resulting in approval of thousands of subdivisions without firebreaks or other mitigation, according to a 1995 paper by the late Robert Irwin of the National Museum of Forest Service. Roads can’t accommodate evacuation and response traffic at the same time. Hydrants are placed at curbside, forcing engines and water tenders to block the very roads needed for residents to escape.
And we love to live next to nature. Because roads have improved, commutes are easier. Homes are larger, nicer and cheaper. It feels serene.
“There’s a preference to living next to open space. And maybe it’s how people who want nicely-built big new homes can afford them,” said Chase.
“Historically. you’ve always had people who want to live outside the city, although you didn’t necessarily see a lot of subdivisions, where housing is sold en masse,” she said. “People think, ‘I am in suburbia, and my house won’t burn.’ ”
But California is a flammable landscape. In fact, fires are an essential part of our healthy ecosystem, said Randi Spivak of the Center For Biological Diversity.
“These areas have always burned, and they’ll burn again,” she said. “Anyone who thinks we can fire proof these wild areas is mistaken.”
But here’s the good news: If we’re the problem, we’re also the solution.
Already, California has taken steps to reduce risk. It has tightened defenses with tougher building codes and mandatory fire prevention fees in rural areas. It has created hazard maps that define high-risk areas. More people know about evacuation routes and the importance of creating defensible space.
But much more must be done, say experts.
In future planning, cities should encourage smarter development, discouraging sprawling new subdivisions in fire-prone areas and instead favoring higher-density construction in cities and established neighborhoods, said Dick Cameron, who leads the Land Programs science team in The Nature Conservancy’s California Chapter. They could consider requiring buffers, such as irrigated agriculture, golf courses or orchards. They also could consider the transfer of development rights from high-risk to low-risk areas.
If we continue on our current trajectory, California will add another 645,000 homes in ‘very high’ wildfire severity zones by 2050, according to his team’s 2014 study, published in the journal Land Use Policy.
“Now is the time to do smarter, stronger land use planning,” Mortiz said, “so our future communities are not as vulnerable.”
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