California will keep burning. But housing policy is making it worse
California Wildfire; Vineyards
The glass fire burns behind the vineyards of Merus Wines in California's Napa Valley on September 27, 2020. - The glass fire grew to 2,500 acres on the evening of September 27th. A heat wave and dry winds create critical weather conditions and mandatory evacuations are warranted. SAMUEL CORUM / AFP via Getty Images
On Monday morning, September 28, California woke up sweaty, devastated, and even shocked when the state burned again. But if we are honest, and to our great shame, no one was surprised. We had seen this horror movie in this town. Three years ago, wildfire killed 25 people in Sonoma County. Now the glass fire was back, burning in the direction of Santa Rosa. At 12:30 p.m., a number of seniors, many in pajamas, stood in line, waiting to get out of their retirement home into an evacuation bus. A tiny woman with a roll sack bent over her walking frame. A man in a red shirt was leaning on his red cane. A woman in a purple robe and magenta slippers sat in her wheelchair with a white teddy bear on her lap. They got off at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium. But then at 2:48 a.m., in front of the slumped crowd, a young man climbed on a folding chair and announced: The fire was moving too quickly towards them. Time to move again.
Further east, the Butte County Sheriff issued an evacuation warning for the entire town of Paradise. The campfire killed 85 people in Paradise less than two years ago. Many survivors, including the former mayor, spent the night sleeping in one of Paradise's 434 newly built homes.
It's all too close, too early: the propane tanks explode, the orange safety vests. In daylight this sky rained bits of ash like dead moths. Many Californians would have felt less triggered by locusts.
California, as we all now know, is going to burn.
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The ecosystem here depends on fire to stay healthy. OK Good.
We suppressed this fire for over a hundred years, and now we live with a deadly residue of ignitions. Not good, but it will take decades to fix the problem.
The climate crisis heated and dried this tinder, leading to five of the six largest fires in California history this year. Not okay at all, but the timeframe for fixing this issue ... um ... let's just put that aside.
That leaves us one thing we could do to prevent wildfire from destroying homes and lives: we become much smarter about where and how we build.
Housing is the megafire-sized climate problem that California lawmakers consistently inadequately address - though Kate Gordon, Governor Gavin Newsom's senior climate policy advisor, told me when asked directly how important housing is to California's climate policy : "Oh, it's huge." Yet it remains unsolvable.
Adam Millard-Ball, professor of urban planning and environmental economics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told me, "It is absolutely the weak link in the state's climate policy." Wealthy urban and suburban areas have been incredibly successful at "pulling up the drawbridge," as Millard-Ball put it, blocking new homes and getting Californians to live in increasingly remote communities, often in what is known as the wildland city interface. (WUI, short for this area where humans meet nature, is pronounced woooeeee.) It initiates a harmful cycle. There people drive more and increase emissions. And thanks to global emissions, these areas are burning more than ever. In August, Millard-Ball himself recently had to vacate his house because of the CZU August Lighting Fire Complex.
"With that in mind ..." he said. "California's housing shortage has taken a really tragic, strong relief in the last few months."
California leads the way on most climate problems. The showpiece is the green transport. Just last week, amid this final round of fires, Newsom promised to retire new cars on gasoline only by 2035. "But when it comes to eliminating the causes why people even have to drive ..." Millard-Ball fell silent. Not much is happening. Or not much good.
On Wednesday evening, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have caused the Californians to stop building new homes in areas of high fire risk. The law had overcome years of delay, appeased initial critics - including the development lobby - and passed lawmakers by a wide margin before it burned out on the governor's desk in the eleventh hour.
As the original sponsor, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat, admitted when the California Senate Housing Committee began debating in April 2019, "not exactly the sexiest stuff in the world." However, it had two important goals: firstly, to identify existing structures that are very prone to forest fires and to make plans for their retrofitting. (This wasn't politically complicated as the measure didn't even include funding.) Second, to ease development pressures in the parts of California with the highest risk of wildfires. To date, no forest fire legislation - or any other climate-related hazard - has impacted California's arcane home allocation system. (This system tells each region how much housing is required to build over a five or eight year period.) But if forest fire risk is set as a valid reason for not building, what happens next? Extreme heat? Nick Cammarota of the California Building Industry Association made this point when he called the bill a "home killer".
"We don't want gentrification. We don't want seismic risk. We don't want sea level rise or wetlands or Ag land protection or floods or toxins. Or you name it," he continued. "The entire state is covered with imperfect construction sites."
However, according to firefighting professionals like former California Fire Brigade Marshal Kate Dargan, dealing with WUI developments is the state's "most pressing" fire issue.
Newsom has signed laws to improve emergency response and preparedness efforts. But his veto on a fairly humble bill felt unfavorable for climate-policy wonks who pay attention to such things. "Right now, it is extremely disappointing to hear that \ @GavinNewsom has decided not to sign # sb182," tweeted Michael Wara, director of the Stanford University climate and energy policy program, at 10:31 pm. On Wednesday. "The real estate crisis is making the decision not to build anywhere extremely difficult. But there are no solutions for the needs of Californian housing production either now or in the future in the WUI." Half an hour later, he tweeted again, appalled by Newsom's refusal to withdraw from the "spread that will ultimately have to be defended against wildfire at a tremendous cost in treasure and hopefully not in blood."
What does it take to bring about change? "If we don't make it now, with the impulses of the real estate crisis and the wildfire ...", said Millard-Ball. Then he fell silent. "It would be incredibly sad to sit back and do nothing."
This is the basic WUI problem: Homes are essentially large heaps of fuel. Homes in the WUI also mean people in the WUI, and people ignite over 95% of California wildfires. Homes further increase the risk to life and structures by making it difficult for land managers to perform prescribed burns. As soon as forest fires become large, homes increase the risk for firefighters. Defending houses in the WUI costs a fortune.
Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension at the Bren School in Santa Barbara, began studying the WUI problem extensively six years ago. He had created fire probability maps under various climate change scenarios, and his fuel data included plants that could burn but not buildings. He found that almost a quarter of the increased risk that appeared to be due to climate change was actually due to development. That is why Moritz wrote a paper together with a team of scientists in 2016 that explains why we need to include land use in the forest fire models. ("I can send it to you if you want. It is great to read before going to bed.") Then Moritz turned to the synthesis of fire research at WUI. Its aim was to present the facts for policy makers. "Then maybe this stuff could be codified," he said. "Because yes, why is it not? Why is it not regulated?"
Following the Black Saturday 2009 fires in Australia, in which 173 people were killed and 2,133 houses were destroyed, the federal government set up a commission which (among other things) found that "planning and building control are crucial factors for security". The Australians then introduced swift and sweeping changes. Including: Inclusion of the bush fire risk in the planning of new developments and inclusion of the glow risk in the building regulations. In the past seven years, California forest fires have killed 193 people and destroyed nearly 50,000 buildings, and the state has done comparatively little to correct the problem. "We have these tragic, big events. We have one black Saturday after the other and almost no movement in these matters," said Moritz.
He had hoped the research he and others had done about where and how we build in the face of climate change would encourage bolder action. "Man, this is your chance to establish your legacy as a progressive leader and tackle a tough problem," he said, as if speaking to Newsom just before the governor's veto on Newsom. "But hey, land use planning ... that's political. That's tough, isn't it? Yes. We need some courage."
To keep a single home in the WUI safe from wildfire, this is your basic checklist. Defensible space. (No flammable materials near your home - safe within the first 5 feet. Newsom signed a separate law Tuesday making it mandatory for areas of high fire severity.) Class A fireproof roof. Two pane windows. Remove flammable substances below deck. Metal gutter covers. A net that covers all ventilation slots.
However, protecting a single home in the WUI is (with just a little exaggeration) like being the only one in your family wearing a mask. Security is inherently a collaborative venture, and fire experts tend to freak out about their neighbors' homes and yards. One has nightmares about wooden shingles "which ignite and fly away like a wing profile spreading fire". Another about mulch, which smolderes embers until a wind whips them into "open flames that creep up to people's house walls". A third told me about ponderosa pines that were killed by bark beetles but not yet felled. "Have you ever had a real Christmas tree and burned it in February?" he asked. "They go off like napalm."
For Wara of Stanford's climate and energy policy program, the zombies are the 20-foot-high juniper bushes that line his neighbor's house. "It's a herd immunity thing, isn't it?" he said. As soon as your neighbour's house catches fire and embers, your house is likely next. "I don't think people understand that."
In the early 1970s, the National Fire Prevention and Fighting Commission dealt with the problem of indoor fires. This culminated in the America Burning report, which in turn led to the establishment of the United States Fire Protection Agency and a 50% reduction in indoor fires since 1980. However, there are no comparable efforts for forest fires. To remedy this, Alexander Maranghides, a fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has done a detailed reconstruction of the campfire that destroyed paradise over the past two years. (NIST plans to release its first of three 400-page reports this fall.) "The external fire problem is technically one to two orders of magnitude more complex than the internal fire problem," said Maranghides. These fires affect topography, weather, fuel conditions, fire fighting, etc. Just defining the fire dynamics of embers is a major task. The intention of this science is not to prevent people from even living in the WUI, which almost no one thinks is feasible. The aim is to educate the public and policy makers about WUI and to provide science and tools that can lead to the creation of cost-effective solutions so that we don't repeat the same tragic and costly mistakes over and over again.
Wara pointed out that people are being rebuilt in Coffey Park, a neighborhood in Santa Rosa that was nearly destroyed in 2017. "And they do all these things that are so avoidable. Like wooden fences that connect houses. It's like a vertical, flammable ember catcher! You just don't have to do that."
* * *
Here's the political problem: 11 million people, over a quarter of all California residents, live in the WUI. We're not going to kick them out.
At the same time, the state is in a real estate crisis, and Newsom has spent his career trying to resolve it. In his inaugural address in January 2019, he announced a "Marshall Plan" for housing and promised to build 3.5 million new affordable units by 2025. You could hear the tension between that promise and the burning of his state in his veto on Wednesday night. "Wildfire resilience needs to become a more consistent part of land use and development decisions," he wrote. "However, it must be done to meet our housing needs."
Currently, the state's climate priorities are distorted. California has "focused on solar, wind, and electric vehicles - the kind of technology solution side of the climate," she said. "We didn't focus that much on land use," admitted Gordon, Newsom's advisor. This is an oversight and the administration knows it, and sometimes even refuses to do so. "As a state, we're the one paying for civil protection, aren't we?" Said Gordon. "It's just not sustainable. I mean, our entire budget will go to disaster relief if we're not ahead of this."
Without action at the state level, it's hard to see California achieve good climate policies. Local governments have a lot of power. Too much power, argues Millard-Ball, a professor at UC Santa Cruz. "Cities can effectively ignore the climate crisis if they make certain decisions," he said. "Like most cities in California, they have developed climate change plans that are great for reducing waste, street trees, and energy efficiency. However, they have said next to nothing about creating more walkable, transit-oriented homes."
The situation is getting worse. Insurers who lose a fortune in the WUI are quick to drop homeowner policies. The bleeding of the "non-renewals" became so acute that the California Insurance Commissioner essentially initiated a breaker freeze and declared a year-long moratorium. But that may not be enough help for residents to afford to stay. Kevin Cann, Mariposa County supervisor, told me, "You're going on the FAIR plan" - California's insurance policy of last resort - "and you see, Holy Smokes! I used to pay $ 1,200 a year and now I'm paying $ 5,000 That is a second mortgage. "
The hard truth is: this is how it should be. WUI housing, at its real cost, isn't the bargain real estate agents refer to when they say, "Drive until you qualify." Last year, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a paper outlining how taxpayers subsidize people who live in areas of high fire risk. How? Fighting fires is expensive - California can spend a billion dollars this year. A large percentage of it is used to defend private houses. This "benefit" in fighting fires should not be neglected: NBER calculated that it can exceed 20% of the value of a property. The fact that the fire fighting is publicly funded reduces the incentive for WUI residents to fire proof their properties. Further distorting the real estate market and creating moral hazard: With a large portion of fire-fighting budgets coming from federal disaster funds, publicly funded fire-fighting reduces the incentive for a city or state - Hello, California - to create and enforce wildland building codes.
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This pattern will be more pronounced with climate change, according to NBER.
The state would also save money if it took a preventive medical approach and invested more funds in fire safety. Each dollar invested in mitigation typically saves six disaster costs. Dargan, the former state firefighter who was a firefighter for 30 years and has a son currently working as a first responder, believes the state is making a mistake by not seeing fire prevention and fire suppression as the same thing. "Damage control and response only happen at different times on the continuum of solutions," she said. "We have the world's best response system in California." And this system works wonderfully - until a megafire breaks out. Then the system fails. At this point, no matter how well trained or how hard they work, firefighters cannot focus on fighting the fire. You can only get people out in time and even then we fail in greater numbers. "We need a better plan. For taxpayers. For WUI residents, like the seniors who were evacuated from their homes in Santa Rosa on Monday after midnight and then evacuated from the evacuation center at around 3:00 am. For people, including their son, at the forefront.
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