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Urban Sprawl and Wildfires: A Dire Combination for Californians

It's not just climate change that's making the disasters worse, it's the increased building within areas deemed particularly vulnerable to fire.
A home is consumed by fire during the Thomas fire on December 7th, 2017 in Ojai, California.

A home is consumed by fire during the Thomas fire on December 7th, 2017 in Ojai, California. 

As wildfires claim lives once again in California—the death toll from the Camp fire now stands at 88, with 196 people still missing—a familiar aftermath is unfolding. Grappling with the instant loss of their homes and ways of life, Californians will start returning to the charred remains of their houses and towns, many mourning loved ones lost to the infernos.

As policymakers and researchers debrief on the destruction, there's a harrowing consensus among scientists: Deadly fire season in the West will only grow longer, fires will only become more deadly, and something has to be done. Cities in wildland–urban interface zones, especially in California, are particularly vulnerable. The wildland-urban interface is where houses, and the infrastructure that goes with them, meet and intermingle with wildland vegetation, making them vulnerable to wildfire.

Three weeks ago, Paradise, California, a small town tucked within the forest at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was virtually wiped off the map in a matter of hours as the Camp fire roared through it. Last year, Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood was similarly destroyed overnight by the Tubbs fire.

It's not just climate change that's making the fires worse, it's sprawl. Over the past 50 years, human beings have expanded the WUI considerably, encroaching more and more on the forest. An Los Angeles Times report explains that, for example, the areas that experienced the deadly Camp fire and last year's Tubbs fire have seen massive and seemingly unstoppable infernos before. But then, neighborhoods and cities weren't in the way.

According to statistics from researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and elsewhere, as of 2010, more than 30 percent of California's housing stock was in the WUI. That's up from 25 percent in 1990, and it's likely grown since 2010. In other Western states, those numbers are even higher.

"Ignitions [of wildfires] are primarily human-caused," said Miranda Mockrin, a researcher with the United States Forest Service. "The concern around housing development is sort of two-fold." More development means higher chances of ignition, and also more homes and people to defend.

In the face of these destructive fires, city and state leaders in California are grappling with how to protect their residents, particularly when so many of the land-use regulations required to mitigate fire risks are often met with hostility from homeowners, subject to local control, and hampered by local politics.

Susan Wengraf is a council member in the City of Berkeley, representing a district that makes up the northern hills of the city. In 1991, the Tunnel fire roared through the Oakland hills nearby, fueled by highly flammable eucalyptus trees. It killed 25 people and destroyed 3,000 homes, and is one of the deadliest fires in state history. The Berkeley and Oakland hills have been considered part of the wildland–urban interface for years, and have seen the devastating results of fire.

But their communities are poorly designed to mitigate fire risks. For example, the small, winding roads in Berkeley's hills, often crowded on both sides by parked cars, leave little room for large emergency vehicles to maneuver. If a fire does break out up there, firefighters may not be able to get to it before it grows considerably. Wengraf knows that striping curbs red so that people can't park on certain streets would make them safer, but the politics are tough. People are attached to their parking, and still don't take wildfires seriously enough.

"There's a phenomenon where people think, 'That'll happen to somebody else, but it won't happen to me,'" Wengraf said. "And a lot of people are paralyzed by not knowing where to start."

The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection recommends that homes in the WUI have between 30 and 100 feet of defensible space (with little to no other flammable structures or plant life) to prevent fires from quickly and easily hopping from home to home. But in Berkeley, a 100-year-old and increasingly dense community, many of the houses are already built, sometimes as little as eight feet away from each other, Wengraf says.

Another aspect: tree removal. During the 1991 Tunnel fire, eyewitnesses told harrowing stories of sparks landing on eucalyptus tree groves that would then instantly explode into flames. These trees continue to dot the East Bay hills in huge numbers, not just on private properties, but on public parks and university land too.

Last year, funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove eucalyptus trees off public lands in the hills was pulled in the face of a lawsuit that claimed the project was unnecessary.

Although Berkeley does have rules that require plant management on private property, they're not enforced proactively. "Right now, it's all complaint-driven," Wengraf says. "If there's a property that your neighbor considers a nuisance, you can call it in and request an inspection." Still, the city rarely issues citations, and many residents don't have the funds to remove the highly flammable trees. It's part of a larger trend throughout the state, according to Edith Hannigan, the land-use planning program manager at the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. "A lot of times it just comes down to money, and there's only so much of it," she says.

Jurisdiction is also complicated. The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, and CAL Fire, the state fire commission, only have the authority to regulate state lands. The board provides recommendations to cities, but those cities are free to ignore them as they see fit.

One example is Susanville, California, a small city in the northeastern corner of the state. In response to the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection's recommendations to the city's general plan related to fire prevention, the city sent back a note that effectively stated it wouldn't be implementing most of the recommendations, according to documents obtained through a California Public Records Act request. Another problem is that, when resources can be found and allocated, policymakers tend to react to large fires with a greater emphasis on fire suppression and not fire mitigation. A survey of eight communities with histories of fire by the University of Wisconsin showed that they almost always react by putting more funding toward emergency response, and not mitigation.

"There are millions ... of dollars going into fighting fires, but there are not millions ... going into preventing the fires," Tom Bonnicksen, a retired forestry and wildfire expert who spent years researching fires in California, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

That problem could get worse as California embarks on ambitious plans to drastically increase its housing stock amid its affordable housing crisis. "Require a new fire-safe component to a building, and it drives up housing costs," Hannigan says. Jurisdictions are caught between a need to build affordable housing quickly and the high price of fire-proofing neighborhoods.

And even when neighborhoods in wildland–urban interface zones take every precaution, they're incredibly vulnerable. According to the East Bay Express, Santa Rosa's upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood had followed all the recommended fire-mitigation tactics. Vegetation was cleared, homes were built with fire-resistant materials, and it even had an entire second road system for firefighters. It was leveled during the Tubbs fire last year.

After the destruction of last year's fires in California, the state assembly passed a series of bills to help address fire needs, including providing grant money to localities and increasing controlled burns on wildlands. The legislature is thinking big. But getting money moving can often be a cumbersome, bureaucratic ordeal. And recent history makes clear: The fire emergency is now. Planning for it should have happened long ago.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.