The wildfires that swept California last year have left wastelands and mounds of rubble in alarming numbers. Some 9,900 fires burned more than 4.2 million hectares of land and destroyed about 10,500 homes and other buildings. The fires killed 33 people and caused damage estimated at about $10 billion. The devastation included five of the six largest fires in state history. This is the first time that the destruction has exceeded one million hectares. Tens of thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes as towns and cities were threatened by fire.
Along with poor natural lands, poor forest management and climate change, population proliferation has also contributed to an increase in catastrophic fires across the West. Studies show that between half and three-quarters of California’s fall wildfires are on the border between wilderness and urban areas, where development meets wilderness and home to about 11 million people across the state. The density of housing in fire-prone sites also fuels fires, as the sparks of fire are transmitted by the wind from one roof of a house to another. In the past few years, in an effort to prevent the spread of fires, the state has mandated the use of fire-resistant building materials in new homes and required property owners to remove dry plant matter around homes so that it does not become fuel for fires.
The policy’s modest results prompted the state—through the judiciary and the legislature—to seek to rein in population expansion by imposing greater control over local land-use planning. The strategy to protect lives and property comes at a time when drought puts California at risk, with wildfires devouring 14,000 hectares on May 9, 12,000 more hectares than at the same time last year. The state attorney general’s office joined two lawsuits in March by environmental groups against San Diego County to block two projects that would add 3,000 housing units on about 2,000 hectares of short-tree land outside the city of Chula Vista. The decision follows a similar move a month ago in Lake County, where developers are seeking to build 1,400 homes and 850 hotel and resort units on 16,000 hectares of rolling grassland north of San Francisco.
In court filings, former Attorney General Javier Becerra asserted that county officials ignored well-founded bushfire risks before approving the plans. The San Diego County Intervention Bill reports 68 fires within five miles of the project site over the past 100 years. In Lake County, fires have hit a proposed development site four times since 2014, including last summer. The state’s decision stems from an update to the California Environmental Quality Act in 2018 that requires local officials to assess the risk that wildfires pose to any new development. San Diego County and Lake County officials insist they have adequately assessed the risks, and have even argued that the projects meet the housing shortage, a state-wide crisis, and provide much-needed real estate revenue to fund schools and roads.
Amendments to the law made the fate of a proposal to build 19,300 homes on 6,700 acres in rural Los Angeles County unknown. A judge there blocked construction last month after finding that the developer had failed to conduct adequate scrutiny over the project’s potential impact on the risk of wildfires in the area. State Democratic Senator Henry Stern is introducing a bill to ban the construction of new homes in areas described by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as “high fire risk.” The Stern legislation aimed to address local control, and stipulated that “the approval of new development in a high fire risk area is a matter of state and not a local matter.”
Senator Stern described the bill as a wake-up call to make clear that planning decisions have consequences beyond city or county boundaries in the form of an escalating cost to state taxpayers for firefighting, emergency response and disaster rescue efforts. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has identified areas of high fire risk based on topography, vegetation, moisture levels and climate models. The size and number of these areas, in which nearly three million people live, is still increasing with the warmer and drier climate. Democratic Senator Mike McGuire put forward a bill that would force cities and counties to adopt new state fire safety standards in building homes in high-risk areas with stronger protections for larger projects. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a firefighting budget bill last month that provides $25 million to help homeowners provide homes with fire-fighting materials. The initial home modification program will help the state move forward with a request for another $75 million in federal funding to expand the endeavor.
There are two bills that encourage individual and collective contributions to develop fire-resistant communities. Senator Stern suggested setting up statewide training and grant programs to entice landlords to modify their homes and comply with defensive space requirements to remove dry vegetation from around homes. Among other measures, a $50 million state conservation program has been launched to help local and regional officials support fire-resistant residential buildings.
* Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor on the US West Coast.
Published by special arrangement with the Christian Science Monitor service.