A costly dilemma
Lawmakers grapple with how to make California safer amid increasingly catastrophic wildfires
In 2008, Paradise was spared.
That June, a fire broke out in one of the canyons southwest of town and quickly roared east, up and over the ridge. Thousands scrambled to evacuate, clogging the roads to safety. A sudden wind shift allowed firefighters to cordon off the flames, but the experience left residents intimately aware of the risks of living in Paradise.
State lawmakers have been aware of the risk, too. In color-coded fire hazard maps maintained by Cal Fire, Paradise is a bright red island in a churning sea of pink, orange and yellow, all denoting various levels of danger.
“It is not a great feeling … to have highlighted an area for its vulnerability, and then having this come to fruition,” said Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire researcher who helped designate the state agency’s “Fire Hazard Severity Zones.”
As California grapples with an increasing possibility that the once-in-a-century wildfires that have torched Paradise and Malibu are becoming once-a-year occurrences, larger swaths of the state’s population may find themselves living in the crimson regions of those maps. Which presents lawmakers with a dilemma: impose costly and politically unpalatable regulations on homeowners and rip up existing infrastructure—or simply accept the risk.
“We’ve got to take intelligent precautions in how we design our cities,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a press conference with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last month. “The zoning and the planning has to take into account the threat of fires, the building of appropriate shelters, so that people can always find a way to escape, and then of course, all the things we’re doing to mitigate climate change. All of it. It’s a big agenda. But what we’re paying this week is a very small fraction of what is needed over the years and decades.”
With wildfires growing ever more ferocious—a product of a changing climate, forests increasingly packed with dead and dry kindling, and the encroachment of development into the state’s wilderness—it can be hard to tell which parts of California should be considered safe anymore. Coffey Park, the suburban subdivision of Santa Rosa that burned in last year’s firestorms, was designated a low fire risk area by Cal Fire.
The agency is now in the process of updating its hazard maps, with an expected draft publication date of next summer.
For state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes Santa Rosa, this year’s fires raise a number of “difficult yet necessary” questions about where and how communities are placed—and then replaced.
“What type of rules and regulations will there be if homes will be allowed to be rebuilt?” he said. “For example, defensible space, landscape restrictions, no longer allowing developments to be built with one way in and just one way out …. If there have been multiple fires over multiple years, are we truly going to rebuild?
“Being very candid with you, the discussion has just begun—but this is a discussion that we are going to have to have because this is the new reality,” he said.
“Job one is to help the people whose lives have been so dramatically altered by this disaster, but we also need to look at the long-term picture of this new normal,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who has championed giving the state more power to override local planning decisions to meet statewide housing goals. “Historically, we have allowed local communities almost complete autonomy in making housing-related decisions, whether that decision is not to allow new housing, whether that decision is to ban apartment buildings, or whether that decision is to allow a lot of housing in very fire-prone areas.”
Wiener says he is not suggesting that development be banned outright anywhere, but that the state should impose standards that “reflect our needs as a state and reflect risks.”
Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 45 percent of all new housing units built in California were constructed in what experts refer to as the wildland-urban interface—where the state’s cul-de-sac’d suburban subdivisions and rural communities meet its flammable forests and shrub fields. The encroachment of homes into undeveloped areas creates a much larger and challenging front for firefighters to defend.
“You get this very different fire dynamic once it gets into a heavily populated area,” said Anu Kramer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-authored the research upon which the estimate is based. “You have cars on fire, propane tanks exploding, and burning houses radiating a lot of heat, which can contribute to neighboring houses igniting. That’s very different from trees and shrubs burning in a forest.”
Strict rules for new homes, but not the old
California already has among the strictest fire-minded regulations on construction. Since 2008, any building constructed in areas designated at very high fire risk must be built with specific roofs, vents and other materials designed to resist fire and keep out flying embers. Homeowners are also required to maintain a perimeter of brush-free defensible space around their houses.
And legislation passed this year extends those restrictions without exception to development on local as well as state land. Cal Fire also operates a consulting arm for local governments hoping to make more fire-appropriate land-use decisions.
But some of those regulations were written with a certain type of community in mind, said Kramer: “Vacation homes in Tahoe with wood roofs and pine trees over the house …. A lot of the regulations are geared towards that quintessential idea.”
The charred homes of more urban enclaves such as Malibu and Santa Rosa were not destroyed by “a giant tsunami wave of flame,” said Chris Dicus, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo professor and president of the Association for Fire Ecology. Instead, they burn “from the inside out after embers get inside the house through vents and windows or under doors.”
Those embers may have traveled from the front of the original fire miles away.
And while many existing regulations require new construction be “hardened” to embers, they don’t apply to existing homes. That leaves many of California’s at-risk communities stuck with old, fire-prone homes and inadequate or constrained infrastructure.
“We’re currently paying for the sins of the past, where subdivisions and other developments were built without fire in mind,” said Dicus.
Some changes are relatively easy to make even after construction: installing ember-resistant vents, weather sealing garage doors and clearing flammable items like lawn chairs off the property’s perimeter can keep embers from starting new spot fires.
Other changes are pricier: regular brush clearing, double-paned windows to reduce radiant heat inside a home, replacing wood roofs with metal and installing fire shutters.
You have a lot of homeowners who “maybe can’t afford to upgrade and retrofit” their homes, said Molly Mowery, president of Wildfire Planning International. “We know now what keeps us safer, but you can’t just change that overnight.”
Homeowner help: Subsidies, rebates and discounts?
One possible solution, said Sen. Wiener: The state could help current homeowners make those changes.
“What we don’t want to do is force people out of their homes because they can’t afford—for lack of a better phrase—a ‘wildfire retrofit,’” he said. He added that he would consider “subsidy and rebate programs … but I don’t want to pretend like I know what all the answers are.”
Absent new government assistance, insurers could encourage homeowners to be more fire-conscious. In the same way that health insurance providers might offer their policyholders discounted gym memberships, home insurers could cut a deal for those who install ember-resistant vents.
But currently only one major insurer in California offers discounts to encourage fire-safe behavior. According to a recent RAND Corp. report, that’s because most providers argue that state regulators don’t let them charge homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas a high enough premium to justify a discount. The state Insurance Department counters that such rate hikes wouldn’t be justified based on the evidence.
The study also found that most homeowners in high-risk areas are just purchasing less coverage and opting for plans with higher deductibles, leaving them more exposed.
And then there are changes that homeowners alone cannot make.
Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, spent last year promoting the region’s evacuation plan, so she knew what to do as soon as reports came in that fire was moving toward Paradise.
“I had turned on the town’s AM 1500 radio station and they were notifying residents that an evacuation center had been set up and that certain zones needed to be evacuating,” she said. “So I felt kind of calm … like, ‘Oh, this is how the plan was supposed to go.’”
But that plan soon met a bottleneck on the Skyway, the main route out of Paradise.
DeAnda said she got on the road at around 8:20 a.m.—along with hundreds of her neighbors. She wasn’t out of the foothills and away from the spot fires popping up along the side of the road for an hour and a half. It’s a drive that would typically take her 25 minutes.
Nearly a dozen of the bodies identified in the devastation left by the Camp Fire were found in their cars, stuck in the crush of evacuation traffic.
Paradise had an evacuation plan. But the plan, and the town’s cramped, 19th century layout, were not prepared for a fire of such intensity or speed. And in that respect, Paradise is not alone. The hills above Berkeley and Oakland, where 25 people died in a fire in 1991, also featured narrow, winding roads that made escape more difficult.
“I worry about another deadly fire in the East Bay,” said Kramer, the researcher. “It burned before and it’s going to burn again. And when it does, it’s going to be really bad.”
To rebuild or say ‘enough is enough’
In the aftermath of fire, local governments often face an impossible task of balancing the need to rebuild as quickly as possible to get those who have lost everything back into their homes with the need to prepare for the worst.
After three fires raged through the foothills of Butte County in 2008, including the one that prompted the first evacuation of Paradise, the county Board of Supervisors made the building code more flexible for homeowners to rebuild. Homeowners could have their permit applications expedited, and use lumber located on their own property for construction. This summer the board renewed and expanded the exemption.
The building code carve-out represents a necessary compromise between smart planning and the needs of homeowner, many of whom could not afford to build a new house up to the current code, said DeAnda. Without the exemption, she said, many homeowners likely would have replaced their burnt homes with modular houses or trailers, which she said often present a bigger fire risk.
DeAnda, who spends most of her time raising awareness about fire safety across the county, lives in one such “ancient mobile home” off Pentz Road. “It’s going up in eight minutes if it catches on fire,” she said.
“There is a lot of emphasis, and understandably so, on prioritizing getting back to normal,” said Dr. Miranda Mockrin, a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service who has studied how communities respond to wildfire. She said most local governments avoid using building restrictions and regulations, instead favoring less coercive, voluntary fire safety programs and educational outreach.
But rebuilding is a slow process. If communities want to require more fire-conscious development, “there is time,” she said.
For Chris Coursey, the mayor of Santa Rosa, which lost some 3,000 homes last year, there was never a question about whether to allow the incinerated communities of Coffey Park and Fountain Grove to rebuild.
“Under state law people have the right to rebuild a legal home that they lose in a disaster. We don’t have the ability to tell them that they can’t rebuild,” he said.
Nor would he want to, he added.
“If you live in California, you’re going to face an earthquake or a fire or a flood or a mudslide at some point—there’s no way to mitigate all of that risk,” he said.
Santa Rosa officials, he added, are trying to drive more development into the city’s downtown and away from its more vulnerable edges. Since last year, nearly 60 homes have been reconstructed. They’ve been built up to the new, municipal fire codes and many homeowners have elected to use more fire-resistant materials. But Coursey said only so much can be done to prepare for catastrophe.
“I think we’re more fire-aware, I think we’re more fire-ready,” he said. “But if that wind and that combination of low humidity and high temperature and high winds happened again, I think we’re vulnerable.”