Don’t Think It Will Be Easy to Fireproof California

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A few miles west of the Northern California city of Redding is the local station of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire. Most of the area along state Highway 299 between the city and the station is now scorched earth, with only foundations and chimneys and heavily singed trees remaining of the residential neighborhood devastated this summer by the Carr Fire, which burned 229,651 acres and destroyed 1,079 homes and 22 commercial buildings.

The CalFire station, though, is still standing. When I drove by it in mid-September there was a big sign out front reading “DEFENSIBLE SPACE?” To the right, amid a small but thick stand of trees and undergrowth, was a “NO” sign. To the left, among well-spaced trees with nothing growing between them, was a “YES.”

This is the direction in which the federal and state agencies that fight wildfires and the insurance companies that are on the hook for the damages are trying to push public thinking about fire, in the West in particular. It’s a good idea! But individual efforts to clear out “home ignition zones” probably aren’t going to be enough to fend off the kind of fires that have devastated California over the past week.

As historian (and Pacific Northwesterner) Jessie Kindig wrote in the Boston Review last month:

The idea of defensible space strikes me as an intrinsically western one. It has taken a tremendous amount of government money, environmental engineering, and colonial violence for there to be such a thing as “private property” in the West, and for people to live out their — historically speaking — absurd fantasies of independence and self-reliance, to create their own western defensible space. And yet still, for the one third of the United States that lives in the wildland-urban interface, each house in each subdivision attempts to surround itself by its own barrier of self-created defensible space, each pretending to be self-reliant yet in need of massive federal funds for power, water, roads, and firefighting.

I don’t endorse every aspect of that characterization, but the gist seems about right. The wildland-urban interface is defined as “lands with more than one housing unit per 40 acres where wildlands dominate the landscape … and land[s] with higher housing densities that are adjacent to natural areas.” The states with the highest share of population living in such areas in 2010, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the U.S. Forest Service, were Wyoming (81.4 percent), Maine (79.8 percent) and New Hampshire (78.9 percent). Residing among the trees is not risk-free even east of the Mississippi: The deadliest wildfire in American history was the Peshtigo Fire in northeastern Wisconsin in 1871, which burned 1.2 million acres of forest and killed more than 1,100 people, while the Great Fires of 1947 killed 16 people in Maine and just two years ago the Great Smoky Mountain wildfires in Tennessee claimed 14 lives. But in Western states where water is scarce, slopes steep and fire risk high, living on the edge of nature can amount to courting disaster.

In California, an estimated 30 percent of the population lived within the wildland-urban interface in 2010, up from 27.6 percent in 1990. That amounted to 11.2 million people, in 4.4 million housing units, and it’s surely more by now. After a wildfire spread from the Berkeley Hills in 1991 to kill 25 people and destroy more than 2,500 houses and apartments in the cities of Berkeley and Oakland, the California legislature instructed CalFire to designate wildland-urban-interface areas that were especially susceptible to the spread of fire as “very high fire hazard severity zones.” One 2014 study estimated that there were about 1.2 million housing units in such zones in the state in 2010, and projected that there would be between 1.6 million and 2.2 million by 2050.

A quick look at the county fire zone maps reveals that neighborhoods destroyed this summer on the west side of Redding were in a very high fire hazard severity zone. So was, as best I can tell, virtually every acre consumed by the Woolsey Fire that has so far destroyed an estimated 435 homes and other structures in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and threatened 57,000 more. And so was the entire now-mostly-destroyed Sierra foothills town of Paradise.

In other words, people already knew that these places were extremely vulnerable. Which makes the Paradise section of the 2015-2020 “Butte County Community Wildfire Protection Plan” something of a chilling read:

The potential for a large, fuel driven fire is very real when fuel moisture conditions are conducive to burning. Fire control will be very difficult due to high fire intensities, leading to fire behavior problems such as long-range spotting, high rates of spread and long flame lengths. Direct attack may be impossible under these burning conditions for safety reasons. An indirect attack with a defensive approach is the most likely scenario for fire control.

That defensive approach mainly involved establishing “fuel breaks” along evacuation routes, which “continue to move forward as funding becomes available.” Officials in Paradise had been practicing evacuations for awhile, too. But when it came time for an entire community to flee (the 2017 population was 26,682, with a quarter 65 or older), many people weren’t able to get out in time. The death toll is currently 42, surpassing the 1933 Griffith Park wildfire in Los Angeles as the state’s deadliest ever, and is almost certain to rise much higher.

It all makes you think that maybe Paradise wasn’t located in the best place. Then again, neither was the San Francisco suburb where I grew up, Lafayette, about a third of which — including the street where my father still lives — is in a very high fire hazard severity zone. Since 2005, California law has required residents of very high fire hazard severity zones to clear out 100 feet of defensible space around their homes, but my impression is that very few actually have. What’s more, Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood that was wiped out in last year’s Tubbs Fire, was not in such a zone, meaning that there are surely many other areas at risk where people aren’t required to take precautions.

The risks, meanwhile, appear to be rising. This May through October was one of the hottest and driest California dry seasons on record. So was the same period in 2017, while no year before 2000 even comes close (the data goes back to 1895). It sure seems likely that human-caused global warming is a big factor here, meaning that this is only going to get worse for the foreseeable future. And even without climate change, California and the rest of the West were due for a rise in the destructiveness of wildfires — mainly because federal and state agencies had been so successful in stopping them from the 1940s onward. One 2012 study of sedimentary charcoal deposits in the Western U.S. concluded that the region saw less fire activity in the second half of the 20th century than at any other time in the last 3,000 years.

The resulting overgrown, unhealthy state of many Western forests has been a topic of some debate lately, with President Donald Trump blaming forest “mismanagement” and “old trees ... sitting there, rotting and drying” for recent fires. Unlike the president’s earlier tweets about California water policy and fires, this isn’t complete nonsense. The U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior, as well as CalFire, are already engaged in ongoing efforts to thin out undergrowth and trees, conduct prescribed burns and otherwise manage forests to reduce fire danger, but don’t have the resources to do nearly enough. In a promising development, the World Resources Institute, Blue Forest Conservation, Rockefeller Foundation and other groups announced earlier this month that they had assembled financing for a $4.6 million bond issue to pay for such forest restoration efforts along the North Yuba River watershed not far from Paradise. But the 15,000 acres that this project will cover amount to just the tiniest of starts in a state with 33 million acres of forest.

A key part of any forest-revitalization strategy is also going to have to be just letting more fires burn more acres, which is sure to be unpopular. Meanwhile, in wildfires closer to the coast, overgrown forests often aren’t the issue; the hot, dry winds that have long been known as Santa Anas in Southern California and are coming to be called Diablo winds in the north can turn even a grass fire into a neighborhood-destroying conflagration.

Which brings us back to defensible space. The most defensible space, it seems, is dense development on flat land with a significant buffer between houses and nature. A city, in other words. City dwellers in California and elsewhere in the West will most likely be just fine in the coming decades, although they may have to get used to wearing respirator masks to filter out the smoke. A lot of other people are going to have to make some major adjustments.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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