Preparedness

Updating California’s Fire Risk Maps Will Take Time, New Tech

Last updated more than a decade ago, the maps that highlight the areas most at-risk for wildfires are being painstakingly re-evaluated in a state more susceptible to fire than ever before.

by Matthew Pera, The Marin Independent Journal / January 8, 2019

(TNS) — State firefighters are taking on the colossal task this year of updating maps that highlight the most fire-prone areas in California.

Fire officials in Marin say the maps, last updated more than a decade ago, are a helpful planning resource. But in California’s current climate, some say, those projections aren’t as relevant as they once were — the whole state is susceptible to flames.

Fueled by extreme winds and dry conditions, California in recent years has experienced many of the largest, most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. Some of those infernos have pushed deep into urban areas, which means nearly everybody is at risk, said Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Cal Fire’s high-hazard projection maps mandate management techniques in California’s most flammable regions.

The state’s most recent maps were released in 2007, and those highlighted portions of Novato, Larkspur and Mill Valley as “high fire hazard severity zones” within city boundaries. High-hazard zones in unincorporated Marin include portions of West Marin near Inverness; areas of the Mount Tamalpais watershed around Kent and Alpine lakes; west of Fairfax; and west of Mill Valley, extending south into Tamalpais Valley.

The map update could take several years to complete, according to Berlant. New technologies will allow mapmakers to sketch out areas that are prone to extreme winds, giving the department a better understanding of the most severe hazards.

But some Marin fire officials worry the maps can give a false sense of security to residents who don’t see their neighborhoods highlighted in high-hazard red.

Bill Tyler, chief of the Novato Fire Protection District, hopes all community members will create defensible space around their homes.

“During red flag conditions with high winds, you can basically erase whatever map lines there are,” he said. “So some of the discussion happening right now is, ‘Do we drop the boundaries? Do we drop the maps and just apply vegetation management and fire-resistant construction to the whole area?'”

In Mill Valley, fire Chief Tom Welch is consistently pushing for greater prevention and preparedness efforts. Since losing his Coffey Park home to the Tubbs Fire in 2017, Welch has proposed what he calls some of the toughest fire safety restrictions in the state.

The proposed regulations would require Mill Valley homeowners remove any combustible vegetation from the immediate perimeter surrounding their houses — a tough sell for those accustomed to growing hedges or gardens in those spaces, Welch said.

Welch listed the techniques he considers best practices to prepare for wildfire:

Know your neighbors and be willing to help.

Have a bag packed with supplies, food and water to make it through the first 72 to 96 hours after a disaster.

Identify at least two evacuation routes from your home.

Create “survivable space” around homes by limiting vegetation within a 3- to 5-foot perimeter around structures. Remove highly-flammable plants, including juniper, bamboo and cypress. Keep grasses mowed and prune trees.

Efforts to safeguard homes and communities from flames shouldn’t be restricted to areas that rank most hazardous, said Jason Weber, chief of the Marin County Fire Department.

“Fire doesn’t know jurisdictional boundaries or maps,” he said.

Said the state’s Berlant: “If you live in California, you should be prepared.”

©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.