Why We Californians Are Drawn Toward Fire Zones (#GotBitcoin?)
Building codes, state grants and low insurance rates have encouraged people to flee expensive cities for their dangerously fire-prone fringes.
The historically deadly wildfires that have roared through California this fall, and a string of similarly destructive ones over the past two years, are boosting calls to do more to slow climate change. But another underlying problem has contributed to the fires’ tragic damage: For decades, California, supposedly the greenest of states, has artificially lowered the cost of encroaching on nature by living in the woods.
Permissive building codes, low insurance rates and soaring taxpayer spending on firefighting and other services have provided an economic framework that has encouraged people to flee the state’s increasingly expensive cities for their leafy fringes. The forested exurbs, including places once thought too hilly or too dry to develop safely, have offered comparatively affordable living with jaw-dropping views.
The upshot: More houses have been packed into the fire-prone border between civilization and forest—known among planners as the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI—in California than in any other state.
This problem isn’t restricted to California’s woodland. Along the coasts, loose building standards and easy federal flood insurance have socialized the costs of building in the path of worsening storms and rising sea levels. It is time, in the parlance of classical economics, to internalize the long-externalized costs of building in the trees or by the beach.
California, both a bellwether of aggressive environmental policy and a pioneer of suburban sprawl, typifies the problem. For years, Cal Fire, the state wildfire-fighting agency, has been spending increasing sums to put out wildfires, as has the U.S. Forest Service. Already by 2006, according to an audit, most of the money the forest service was spending to put out large fires was “directly linked to protecting private property” in the wildland-urban interface. Meanwhile, at public cost, government has been encouraging more development by pushing infrastructure—roads, utilities, rescue services—ever farther into the forest.
Lax building codes are at the base of the problem. Even in California, which has some of the toughest such rules in the country, they often aren’t adequate or adequately enforced. The codes often dictate the use of fire-retardant materials in house construction but typically say nothing about how a development must be situated on the landscape—and that can help determine whether that development will burn in a fire, says Max Moritz, a cooperative-extension wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “So the developers are able to come in, propose something, and often, without too much oversight, walk away after having built something in a dangerous place,” he says. “And we pick up the tab.”
In Redding, a city in far northern California where some neighborhoods were devastated by this summer’s massive Carr Fire, city officials have worked in the past with developers navigating the building code to help them save on costs, City Manager Barry Tippin says.
For instance, Redding let a developer build a subdivision with just one road in and out instead of two under an allowed exception in the code; the one road was wider, but two are generally considered safer in an emergency. Now, he says, officials are reassessing their view of the code and have won a grant to pay for an outside review of their rules. “In the future, we should take a more deliberate and maybe harder stance,” he says.
‘In the future, we should take a more deliberate and maybe harder stance.’ —Redding, Calif. City Manager Barry Tippin
Between 2000 and 2013, more than three-quarters of all buildings destroyed by fire in California were in the state’s WUI, and more were destroyed there than in all the WUI areas across the rest of the continental U.S. combined, according to a recent study led by Anu Kramer, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That is partly because of increasing construction in the WUI and partly because it is so weakly regulated. Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based nonprofit research firm that specializes in wildfires, notes that rules to protect buildings from fire—for instance, requirements for sprinklers and for regular fire-code inspections—tend nationally to be far stricter in urban areas than in the WUI, despite the relative risk. “If you place a home out in the woods, in a tinderbox, those rules don’t apply,” he says. “It’s backward.”
Once a house is built in California’s WUI, the state’s unusually low insurance rates have the effect of shifting much of the real cost. The average California homeowner pays about $1,000 a year in homeowner’s insurance—about half the level in Florida or Texas, two other states with markedly rising incidences of natural disasters believed linked to climate change.
That is a result of state policy, not an accident. California has an elected state insurance commissioner, one of 11 in the country who are elected, who caps the rates private insurance companies may charge. When insurers seek permission to raise rates to cover catastrophes, state law requires that they average at least 20 years of prior catastrophic-loss data, which minimizes the recent dramatic increases in fire damage. Those increases, wildlife specialists warn, suggest things to come.
There are signs the market is responding. In two fire-prone parts of California outside Los Angeles and Sacramento, the share of insurance policies supplied the traditional way dropped by 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2015. But that merely sent more homeowners to a state-mandated insurance pool for high-risk areas. “The whole system is geared toward acting like we don’t have any problems,” says Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, an industry group. “Don’t we want people to think twice when they’re living and building in these risky areas?”
Other government payments further tilt the economics. Taxpayer-funded state grants commonly pay for brush-removal and other fire-prevention efforts in high-risk areas. When fires happen, taxpayers foot the bill to put them out. In 2011, the state began charging a fee to WUI homeowners to fund firefighting and prevention, causing an outcry; in 2017, it was rescinded as part of a larger piece of environmental legislation. Even in the wake of the most recent fires, some local California jurisdictions are streamlining the issuance of permits to rebuild to help homeowners, though wildfires often return to the same places, suggesting the spots that have burned before may burn again.
With socialized support like this, it’s little wonder that more people, especially those priced out of places like Los Angeles or San Francisco, aren’t moving to safer ground. The Wisconsin-led research team found that in 11 California fires, more than 90% of buildings that burned down were rebuilt within 25 years.
Fixes are available. Authorities could make it easier for insurers to raise rates in areas at high risk of fire. They could impose or restore fees in those areas to pay the extra cost of firefighting and other services. They could significantly toughen building codes and require existing buildings to be retrofitted to be more fire-resistant. (Such things aren’t politically impossible; in 2015, Los Angeles ordered the retrofitting of some types of earthquake-prone buildings.) They could even consider using public money to buy people in the highest-risk spots out of their properties, as the government does when it wants to build a highway.
Inaction will itself bring increasing costs. Climate change has arrived, and society ought to adapt in ways that make the most economic sense. Those who live on the exurban frontiers increasingly vulnerable to global warming’s effects do so for a variety of reasons: Some have lived there for generations; others have been priced out of closer-in areas; still others, with deeper pockets, are chasing quiet and views. But all of them, science suggests, are in the path of intensifying harm, as the death and destruction from the recent California fires underscored with heartbreaking harshness.
This isn’t a question of morality; it’s one of money. In an era of increasing climate change, implicit subsidies to develop nature’s rough edge are a luxury society can less and less afford.
San Diego County Wants To Build 10,000 New Homes In Fire-prone Areas
The San Diego region has no shortage of homes next to fire-prone hillsides covered in highly flammable chaparral and grasslands. The undulating, arid topography has carried flames at mind-boggling speeds in some of the state’s most destructive blazes.
Now elected officials in the county want to add another roughly 10,000 homes in areas largely labeled by Cal Fire as posing a “very-high” fire hazard.
Those units would come in the form of eight new sprawling housing projects, which have drawn widespread opposition and even lawsuits.
The development, county supervisors have said, is badly needed and in each case, developers have laid out exhaustive fire-prevention blueprints.
Elected officials have stressed that those plans are reviewed and approved by local fire districts or Cal Fire.
“I take every decision I make very seriously and always rely heavily on the feedback provided by our fire experts, the firefighters,” said board chair Kristin Gaspar in an email.
Environmental groups, who have opposed the projects on a number of grounds, renewed their attacks in November following what became the state’s most deadly and destructive blaze, Northern California’s Camp Fire.
“It’s a huge risk putting thousands of lives in these areas where we know fire is going to happen,” said Tiffany Yap, an advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which estimates the projects would put as many as 40,000 people in danger of wildfire.
County staff declined several requests for interviews on the topic, citing ongoing litigation against the projects that have already received needed amendments to the county’s 2011 general plan — Newland Sierra, Valiano, Harmony Grove Village South and Otay 250 Sunroad.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob, being absent for the votes in question, is the only member of the board not to vote to approve the projects. She said that changes to established zoning rules must be weighed against wildfire risk.
“The county’s general plan, our guiding document on land-use issues, was overhauled a few years ago and now steers future development to existing communities with well-established services,” she said in an email. “It guards against sprawl in remote areas and aims to minimize losses in any disaster.”
According to experts, California’s building codes and planning strategies have come a long way in recent years to protect homes from wildfire. Specifically, homes built since 2008 in fire-prone areas have been required to include features, such as vents designed to stop embers, dual-paned and tempered windows, as well as fire-resident roofs, walls and doors.
The state also requires residents to maintain defensible space around a home’s perimeter by removing flammable materials, including brush and other vegetation. Exact rules can vary as some municipalities, such as San Diego County, have stricter provisions.
Many communities, notably in Rancho Santa Fe, Ramona and Julian, have been able to stave off the worst impacts of wildfire thanks to these upgrades and practices, said Christopher Dicus, a professor of wildland fires and fuels management at California Polytechnic State University.
“You can reduce the heat exposure to the home, but more important is preparing the homes for the ember attacks that are going to ensure under Santa Ana winds,” he said.
“All it takes is one ember that can travel literally miles in front of the make fire front.”
He said the research community doesn’t fully understand how to prevent embers from burning down the house.
“When these embers are coming out it’s not like little embers, they’re like softballs blowing at 60 miles an hour slamming against homes, literally billions looking for any sort of nook and cranny they can get into,” he said.
At the same time, experts said that too often homeowners become complacent about chopping back fast-growing vegetation or leave flammable items resting against their homes. Enforcing the rules consistently over time can be difficult given limited resources and sprawling housing conditions.
Cal Fire San Diego declined interview requests for this story.
What these building codes and other rules don’t take into account is whether a particular project should be built at all, said Max Moritz, a cooperative extension specialist in wildfire at the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara.
“There’s all these hazards that we use to guide our building and our zoning from floods to landslides, and fire is not one of them,” Moritz said.
“In the end, the taxpayer is left holding the bill for all this,” he added. “The developer may do a really good job at designing and convincing everybody that it’s the right thing to do, but after they walk away, the public is left doing fuels maintenance for decades, and the public picks up the bill when there’s a disaster.”
Many of the fire-protection plans for the proposed developments in San Diego County include sophisticated measures, including large swathes of defensible space, walls to block potential flames and strategically irrigated landscapes.
Michael Huff, a principal senior urban forester with Dudek, said his company has designed several of the blueprints for the current projects, including Newland Sierra and Harmony Grove Village South.
He said he goes so far as to model wind conditions on a localized scale when designing a fire plan.
“Every site that we work on in San Diego is different,” he said. “It’s based on everything from the location to the fuel types to the exposure to the winds.
Huff said that in some cases he has turned down work because a project could not be built safely.
However, he declined to call out any such developments in particular because they are likely still seeking approval.
“I’d rather not say too much about them because they may still be active trying to get through, and I don’t want to put any attention on them,” he said.
In an email, county staff said the agency has denied about 20 proposed subdivisions since 2009 based on wildfire concerns related to building codes.
L.A. County Supervisors OK Development of 19,000 Homes In Fire-Prone Are Of Tejon Ranch
The conflict between the need for more housing in California and the danger of building in fire-prone mountains was decided in favor of homes Tuesday as Los Angeles County supervisors approved a massive rural housing development.
The supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a 19,000 home project amid a statewide housing shortage, high rents and a very visible homelessness crisis even as recent wildfires have drawn attention to the danger of building in rural terrain that rings California’s urban areas.
The Centennial project at Tejon Ranch off Interstate 5 in arid mountains that separate Los Angeles from the Central Valley to the north has been in the works for two decades.
While supporters touted the jobs that would be created building the new homes, including nearly a fifth set aside for the poor, opponents criticized environmental destruction in the undeveloped area and took aim at the fire hazard it presented.
“Centennial can include all the safety measures they like in the new development, but the fires will not conform to these precautions,” warned Lesley Goren. “The fires will not excuse our short-sightedness — rather our poorly thought-out mistakes will just burn like the fuel they are.”
County planners and fire officials signed off on the project, and developers said the community 65 miles north of downtown Los Angeles would be built to minimize fire hazards and roads would be widened to help people evacuate if there is a fire.
Greg Medeiros, a vice president with Tejon Ranch Co., said the development was planned in the flattest areas nearest to highways and would use anti-ember construction and buffers around homes. Four new fire stations would be built in the several villages planned.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the area where the development would be built, spoke in favor of the project. She said she was confident concerns about impact on traffic would be alleviated and she was relying on the opinion of fire experts that the risk of fire was minimized.
She cited the state’s need for 180,000 new homes a year — a goal it falls shy of by 100,000 units. She said the shortage had put a strain on affordability and the homelessness problem and suggested Centennial would contribute to solving those problems without creating the runaway development associated with Southern California.
“This is not just another sprawl project,” she said.
The state has deemed the area a “high” and “very high” fire hazard zone. There were 31 wildfires greater than 100 acres within five miles of the development, including four within its boundaries in the past half-century, county planning documents said.
The project surrounded by miles of wilderness received a boost from several prominent environmental groups, such as Audubon, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council who signed on in support a decade ago in exchange for developers conserving nearly 90 percent of the 420 square-mile (1,085 square-kilometer) property. Groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity have opposed the plan and said they may sue to stop it.
Supporters wore green “I support Centennial” stickers and opponents wore red stickers saying #stopcentennial and displaying the image of a condor, an endangered species in the area.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl cast the lone dissenting vote, saying the destructive Woolsey fire in her district had brought the project into focus for her. She said it wasn’t wise to build a city in such a remote location. She also doubted promises that half the people living there would be able to work locally.
“I think it’s a little bit of pie in the sky,” Kuehl said. “There’s an enormous number of things wrong with this project.”
Construction that has spread into mountainous forests and chaparral-covered canyons outside urban areas in recent decades has frequently been criticized as short-sighted after destructive wildfires.
Retiring Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott told The Associated Press on Monday that government officials should consider banning such construction, though he wasn’t referring to any specific project.
Fresh on the minds of many speakers at the board meeting was the death and devastation last month from the Woolsey Fire that ripped through Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains nearby and the Camp Fire in Northern California that killed at least 85 people, destroyed about 14,000 homes and laid waste to the city of Paradise.
Vicki Kirschenbaum referred to the loss of Paradise when she asked supervisors to imagine months of drought, soaring temperatures and a neglected camp fire getting out of control.
“Flames igniting highly flammable grasses, fire spreading house to house, consuming Centennial’s 19,000 homes. Fifty-seven thousand people desperately trying to evacuate with one major road out,” Kirschenbaum said. “You have the power to make sure that nightmare never happens.”
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