The Social Costs of Living in Wildfire-Prone Areas 

With dangerous fires becoming the norm in California, the price to pay for living in and near wooded areas can no longer be ignored.

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"People seem to have short memories," said Sabrina Drill, a natural resources advisor for the UC Cooperative Extension, a statewide off-campus division of the university system that focuses on agriculture and natural resources. "I think people might think twice about building a home where there had just been a fire, but people seem to forget after about three years."

The City of Oakland recently released a draft vegetation management plan that outlines risk areas and generally describes actions that could mitigate fire hazards.

Piper, who chairs the Oakland Firesafe Council, a fire prevention advocacy group, doesn't think the long-awaited plan amounts to much. "It provides almost no detail on actual projects — just guidelines and recommendations," Piper said. "It's hot air."

She said dense groves of eucalyptus and thickets of flammable French broom are overgrown to dangerous levels throughout the hills, and that Oakland officials are essentially ignoring a looming threat.

Piper lives in a rebuilt home on the same property she occupied in 1991, and she, perhaps more than most Californians, has cause for concern. "Where fires happen once, they happen again," she said. "Just look at Lake County — they've had three fires in five years. It's been almost 30 years in the East Bay. We are overdue."

In 2017, two wildfire events in California — the North Bay fires and the Thomas Fire near Ventura — burned almost 600,000 acres of land and killed 46 people. It was California's deadliest and all-around most destructive year of wildfires, with flames consuming a total of 1.3 million acres.

The summer of 2018 has already seen some enormous blazes in Mendocino, Lake, and Napa counties, another near Yosemite, where a firefighter was killed in the line of duty, and a large and aggressive fire that threatened much of Redding in late July and killed at least seven people.

"If what we're seeing this summer is the new normal, it's imperative we act now and try and mitigate the fire risks and not just wait until the next fire happens," said Senator Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa who has proposed two bills that would hold utility companies — whose power lines are a frequent ignition source — to higher levels of accountability in fire prevention and damage.

A variety of factors are making fires larger and more frequent. For decades, flawed forest management policies mandated that firefighters extinguish virtually every wildfire they could. This allowed immense volumes of fuel which would have been eliminated by small semi-annual fires to build up in the state's forests. Tens of millions of trees died during and after the drought of water stress and bark beetle infestations, adding to the accumulating fuel load. Now, the long era of fire suppression is backfiring as large fires consume the enormous aggregations of woody debris in blazes so large that firefighters can often only watch them burn.

The warming planet, with higher average temperatures accompanied by more extreme droughts and winters, is worsening the wildfire trend. The exceptionally wet winter of 2016-17, for example, prompted tremendous vegetation growth. Then came the hottest summer on record, with a record-setting heatwave on Labor Day weekend that dried much of California to a crisp and primed the state to explode into flames weeks later.

The fires have sparked discussion over residential development in California's woodlands. The devastating Tubbs fire, which burned through Santa Rosa last fall, came as a near repeat of the Hanly fire of 1964, which mapping analyses show occurred in almost the exact same footprint as the later disaster.

"But in 1964, almost nobody lived out there, and they lost 150 homes," said Jerry Kent, a Lafayette resident who, when he was the assistant general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District, helped local firefighters contain one section of the Tunnel Fire. "This time, they lost almost 6,000."

That's because development in the wildland-urban interface has skyrocketed — often in spite of known fire hazards. One in seven homes in California — about 2 million all told — have been built in areas deemed to be at high or extreme risk of wildfire, according to Verisk Analytics, an insurance data provider. Van Butsic, a UC Berkeley researcher who studies forestry and land use, has closely studied this. In a paper now under review for publication, he and scientist Anu Kramer, from the University of Wisconsin, describe an alarming trend of building homes in known fire-risk areas.

"We studied 30 of the largest fires since 1970," he said. On average, they found that 20 years after an inhabited area burns, not only were most of the destroyed homes rebuilt but many new homes were added — about twice as many homes in total as there were at the time of the burn.

"It shows there isn't a lot of adaptation based on fire history," Butsic said. "California is in a housing crunch, and also there are tax benefits that communities see from allowing development."

For instance, the upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood in Santa Rosa that burnt to ashes in the Tubbs fire had also burnt in the 1964 Hanley fire, before it was developed. It is now being rebuilt.

When people choose to live in a known fire risk area, it seems they don't think much about it — or they're willing to take chances.

"Even in the highest-risk parts of the state, like in San Diego County, there's the chance that fire engines might be parked in front of your house once in 80 years, and people tend to think, 'I'll just roll the dice,'" Stewart said.

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