Wednesday, September 16, 2020

My 2019 Op-Ed on California wildfires

Last year the San Jose Mercury News published an op-ed I wrote about California wildfires, then republished by Green Foothills (now my current employer). Seems a bit relevant today, so it's below. I'll add that fighting for better land use will also do a lot to help fight climate change.

As still more wildfires hit California this fall, we remain in denial about the primary cause of our disastrous wildfire risks.

Climate change contributes to wildfire now and will grow even further in importance, but it is not currently the primary risk factor and not subject to denial here in climate-conscious California. Similarly, there’s no denial of the need for certain helpful actions, using different building materials and setting prescribed fires to burn out fuel loads before they get out of control. These acknowledged issues also are not the primary drivers of wildfire risks, although they dominate the discussion and potential actions by government agencies.

The primary factor creating wildfire risk is land use, specifically the extent to which we scatter residential development in wildland areas, like lighter fluid on a bundle of wood. California county and city governments do not acknowledge this fact in their own “mini-constitutions,” their General Plans. Until they do – and then take action to do something about it – wildfire history will continue to tragically repeat itself.

Research has made clear that the greatest risk of losing a home to fire comes from land use decisions that disperse development across the Wildand-Urban Interface, the so-called “WUI”.  You can map this risk rising and falling like a hill on a graph, where risk is low at very low density development in the WUI, rises high in the middle level of density, and then drops low again with increased density approaching suburban lots. Research from Alexandra Syphard of the Conservation Biology Institute, and by many others, has demonstrated the problem.

In wilder areas with few residences, the chances of a human-caused ignition are low, and the space for a fire to burn out without harming anyone are higher. In places with suburban residential densities or greater density, the amount of trees and brush that catch and carry fire are lower, fire stations are closer and quicker to respond, and multiple homes can be protected at the same time. Between the two with the highest level of risk is the worst of all worlds, where residences are scattered liberally as ignition sources with plenty of wildland fuels to threaten life and property. That worst of all worlds is what land use planning for rural areas usually designates in county General Plans, as well as many cities that also oversee undeveloped lands.

Look at the General Plans for Santa Clara County, Contra Costa County, and Sonoma County, and you will not find an acknowledgment of land use patterns as the primary driver of fire risk. At best they have some suggestion of minimizing development in fire hazard areas, not an acknowledgment that this development is the core problem. These three counties are now revising their General Plans, and now is the time to fix this problem.

Counties and cities need first to get over the denial and to expressly acknowledge that scattering new development in the WUI is currently the primary driver of wildfire risk. Then they start doing something about it. Doing something would not mean forcing people out, but it could put strong restrictions on new development and give alternatives to people after a wildfire who do want to leave.

The good news is that while land use planning doesn’t yet acknowledge the problem, recognition is increasing in the media and in public discussion. We need the land use driver of wildfire risk to be acknowledged where it counts most, in county and city General Plans. Just like climate change, we must acknowledge and end this denial in order to have a chance to overcome it.


Old_salt said...

The situation is somewhat different in Oregon. Dry winds from the desert side blew down through the major valleys through the Cascades and carried fires downslope. The fires burned towns that have been there for more than a century, most of which have not changed size in decades.

Snape said...

As you know, most were old logging towns, and population has even declined.

Detroit, OR:
Historical population
Census Pop. %±
1960 206 —
1970 328 59.2%
1980 367 11.9%
1990 331 −9.8%
2000 262 −20.8%
2010 202 −22.9%
Est. 2019 225 11.4%

OT, but some those towns have long-term temperature records, useful for a comparison in the UHI debate. Ie, temperature change in a fast growing city compared to one nearby that hasn’t grown at all.

David B. Benson said...

Brian, what do you do for Green Foothills?

Snape said...

I don’t think I will really feel the gravity of what happened until I drive up the canyons. See in person what’s left of places I’ve known my whole life.

Bill Waterhouse said...

And we need to greatly strengthen building codes to require fire resistant construction.

Brian said...

Tom - thanks, I'll keep that in mind!

Old Salt and Snape - I'm very sorry about the loss there. My only point is that while I have many other problems with urban sprawl and suburbia, they aren't the main fire risk (except for really foolish developments like the Oakland hills). The main fire risk is from scattered, rural development in the wildland-urban interface. So the fire risk question is less about whether those towns have grown and more about whether there are more residences out in the forests and hills.

David - I formerly worked at Green Foothills for 9 years, have been on the board, and am now working there on an interim basis, filling in for a personnel shortfall. Mostly working on Santa Clara County issues.

Bill- agreed on building codes. And even more important for new development is requiring undergrounding of any new power line extensions.

Snape said...


Houses were scattered all over the lower elevations of the burned area, so you are correct on that point.

High winds were forecast well in advance, so power should have been shut off to the power lines (a lesson learned from the Camp Fire, but for some reason ignored here). The biggest ones emanate from the dams, as seen in this photo from Wikipedia (Detroit Dam):

(Not sure if these major lines were the ones that were damaged, though.)