Even after record-setting fires devastated communities around the West, resistance to policies to reduce housing vulnerability persists, particularly if they constrain development.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
As rain and snow cover California and the West, they spell an end to this year’s fire season and ease the fears of millions of homeowners living in or near forests. But this respite has an unfortunate byproduct. Less concern about danger can mean more resistance to local moves to tighten up building requirements and zoning codes.
The reasons to fear fire are all too apparent. Between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2018, the federal government declared 19 major fire disasters, 13 of them in the West. Fire frequency tracks the warming climate: seven of the top 10 fires in California history happened in the last two years, including the two worst. But even after the 2018 destruction — 1.9 million acres of land burned along with more the 21,000 structures — experts have seen fire amnesia set in. Coupled with resistance to government dictates, it frustrates those promoting resilience through building restrictions.
Few, if any, western communities have banned homebuilding in vulnerable areas of private land. The insurance industry had begun to step in: over the past year, hundreds of thousands of insurance policies were revoked. But this month, the California state insurance commissioner temporarily barred insurance companies from canceling policies for one million homes in areas affected by fires this year.
The first focus in fighting the impact of wildfires is to suppress active fires. The second is treating the forest by cutting back the growth of brush and thinning the trees, since forests are where the fires start. But reducing the vulnerability of individual homes or avoiding new construction in harm’s way usually has been a lower priority.
“It takes years of pretty careful study before you realize that it’s about the house itself. The rest of us are thinking, ‘These are forest fires, so the problem is in the forest,’” said Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics, a research firm based in Bozeman, Montana. “It’s the house, damn it, it’s the house.” In an interview with The Associated Press, Ken Pimlott, who just resigned as director of the California’s fire services, called on state officials to consider keeping new subdivisions out of mountain forests or the shrub-covered canyons of Southern California.
Yet local officials are reluctant “to tell people where they can and can’t live, and how they can and can’t live,” said Molly Mowery, the chief executive of Wildfire Planning International. Her firm works with Headwaters Economics in a program to advise western communities seeking to ways to build resilience. Does she know of such restrictions for limiting where development can happen in the West? “Only for wildfire?” Though state codes control how to build, “I can’t think of any community” prohibiting homebuilding in risky areas, she said.
Why? Two main obstacles prevent the embrace of measures to ensure resilience. One is concern about government regulation or the private-market equivalent - cancellation of insurance policies. Another, noted by outgoing fire director Philpott, is the critical need for affordable housing. Any uptick in public appreciation of the need to restrict homes runs into the wave of concern about a lack of affordable housing. “For a variety of reasons, we need to continue to address building… even in elevated fire-risk areas. The affordability and availability of housing is at a crisis level in California,” said John F. Dunbar, the mayor of Yountville in California’s Napa County and president of the California League of Cities.
That said, local communities, from the Bay Area to the Sierras, now pay attention. “We have 478 member cities that have best practices that we’re sharing,” Dunbar said. “Unfortunately, many of our communities are getting educated through these disasters.” Using data from the University of Wisconsin’s Silvis Lab, Buzzfeed News produced a map of areas at risk.
The insurance company FM Global calculates an annual resilience index of locations around the world.
Pulling the camera back, Dunbar said that there are many analogies nationally for the wildfire risk to homes in the West, whether from hurricanes in the Southeast, tornadoes in the farm belt, winter storms around the Great Lakes, or earthquakes in California. “To say we should only build and rebuild in areas that are completely safe — well, it’s a challenging task to find a place where it’s completely safe,” he said.
Still, the western United States ranks 22nd worldwide on the insurance company FM Global’s index of resilience, behind the central U.S. (9th) and the eastern U.S. (11th) and Canada (13th). Congress’s General Accounting Office reported that from 2015 through 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency used $2.4 billion in cash and in-kind resources for wildfire victims and recovery efforts. Most went for assistance to individuals and debris removal.
Across the country, homeowners resist forced resilience dictates. On the Atlantic coast, if a hurricane destroys a home, it is often rebuilt even bigger. Just one community, Virginia Beach, has banned high-risk development, specifically on a waterlogged parcel of 50 acres. A court has upheld the ban. But this decision is an anomaly.
Even without legal mandates, a growing number of Western communities have taken measures to reduce risk. These focus not on where people build homes but how they build. Since 2010, California has had some of the toughest fire-related building codes in the country. Some communities are purchasing vulnerable land; many work to teach homeowners how to harden their homes.
But only a minority of people living in the West favor using local public funds to help homeowners living in the interface between wild lands and developed areas. This came through clearly in recent public opinion poll done by Bruce Cain, a political science professor and Iris Hui, a senior researcher at Stanford University. [Both are my colleagues at the Bill Lane Center for the American West.]
Their poll, conducted three months ago, found that 25 percent of California respondents knew someone affected by a wildfire in the past year, More than half said they had been affected by wildfire smoke. Still, there was scant support (25 percent) for requiring homeowners to abandon wildfire zones after a fire. Some 22 percent favored a ban on rebuilding of homes that wildfires had destroyed.
Yet another obstacle to increasing a community’s resilience is an often-diffuse local decision-making process, involving county and municipal officials and, when it comes to building codes, sometimes states as well. The need to cultivate acceptance for new limitations and building restrictions falls most heavily on local officials.
A spokesman for rural California communities argued the issues of home safety should not preempt what he thinks is more important. “What is unfortunate is that the narrative is changing into what should happen in these communities instead of how to maintain and dissect the [basic] issue — mismanagement of forests,” said Justin Caporusso, the vice president for external affairs at Rural County Representatives of California. He went on, “Hardworking rural Californians have been living in these parts for … years. Our forests over several decades have been mismanaged and have led to catastrophic wildfire events that shouldn’t have happened.”
In an e-mail, Rasker of Headwaters Economics addressed Caporusso’s point. “Some say it’s about the home. Others say it’s about the forest. They both may be right, but for different problems they are trying to address…. If you define homes burning as the problem, then the home ignition zone is where the solution is. “
A 2018 article in “Environmental Management” noted that community-based wildfire protection plans “often emphasize forest conditions and landscape-level fuel modification, with less emphasis on changing resident behavior, construction materials or land-use planning.” Why? “Such efforts remain unpopular, particularly in rural areas,” the report said.
As a result, “formal regulation and planning is typically less common than informal efforts to diminish wildfire risk,” wrote the three authors, who were led by Miranda H. Mockrin of the U.S. Forest Service. “Much of the responsibility for adapting to fire falls on local governments and communities, because unlike other natural hazards (e.g. floods) there are no federal mandates to minimize or manage wildfire exposure.”
As Jim Webster, program coordinator of Wildfire Partners, based in Boulder County, Colorado, explained, “If you go and move into the foothills, the mountains, and the forest, you’re moving into a fire-risk area.” He added. “People have to understand fire behavior and how homes burn, as opposed to saying, ‘I’m living here and the fire department is going to take care of everything.’” That kind of cultural change he said, “takes time. Seatbelts took time.” But time may not solve everything. Mockrin and her fellow authors found “residents may decline to take adaptive action if they become fatalistic or inured to the hazards, or if they are easily able to cope with wildfire impacts.”
Limiting Growth in Wildland Areas Mitch Tobin/waterdesk.org
Where have communities adapted to their risks? In Holland, said Dave McWethy, an assistant professor of Earth Sciences at Montana State University. Over centuries, they adjusted to living on low land by the sea. “Instead of just responding in a reactionary way, which is often how societies respond to hazards” said McWethy, “their cultural context allowed them to be more proactive. ‘How do we fix this long-term?’”
One way to hasten the cultural change, said Rasker: Reward resilient communities. “In Montana we didn’t have a speed limit,” he said. “The federal government said, ‘You don’t get highway funds unless you have a speed limit.’ … Why not do the same thing around wildfire? … If you’ve got a wildland-urban interface (WUI) code requiring the use of flame-retardant building material, you’re eligible for certain grants. If you don’t, you’re not.”
Putting such ideas into action takes time. And “we’re running out of time,” said Mowery, of the community assistance group CPAW. “In land-use planning, it takes a long time to get people on board. We don’t have a command-and-control government that can say, ‘Tomorrow, we’re all going to build our homes this way.’”
What can be done? The town of Pinetop-Lakeside in Arizona, and counties like Boulder in Colorado and Ventura and Butte in California — where the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise — are forging a path forward. The recipe for creating resilient communities near old forests, experts say, is part technical, part political, and part psychological.
Amid Deep Forest Cover, a Model Community Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire
Pinetop-Lakeside is a fast-growing community of 4,361 people near Arizona’s White Mountains, halfway between Phoenix and the New Mexico state line. Two major fires — the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002 and the Wallow fire in 2001 — meant forced evacuations and destroyed 500 structures. Today, “we’ve got small micro-forests on everybody’s property that we are trying to mitigate,” Jim Morgan, the fire chief, explained. “Just in our fire district we have 7,500 acres that needs to be mitigated.” Private properties, ranging in size from one-third of an acre to 20 acres, “have become overgrown because the community… didn’t understand tree density and how it relates to fire behavior in catastrophic wildfires,” Morgan said.
The National Fire Protection Association’s “Firewise” program, designed to reduce a community’s vulnerability, emphasizes how to maintain a defensible space around a home, avoid a home’s intake of wind-borne embers, create fire breaks in landscaping, space trees and remove vegetation. Communities in compliance receive a certificate, which can reduce insurance rates. Five years ago, of the 32 homeowner associations in the White Mountains, none were certified, Morgan said; now 11 have certifications with seven more working toward one. But the changes aren’t always welcome. Some homeowners, he said, “moved up there for the trees and we’re taking trees off their property. For some people, the removal of trees is too dramatic.”
Research by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1990s helped shed light on how houses react to radiant heat from wildfires – and what puts them at greatest risk.
The illustration above, by the National Fire Protection Association, shows three zones radiating from a home, each with different suggested treatments for increasing resilience. Starting with the “Immediate Zone” up to five feet around a house, Firewise techniques recommend that homeowners remove dead vegetation, fix loose roof shingles, and remove flammable materials. Further away, experts recommend keeping trees well separated and free of dead material, among other suggestions.
Pinetop-Lakeside was one of four communities in the West to receive technical planning assistance this year from Mowery’s team, as part of the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program. In addition, state agencies gave the town three grants totalling $557,000 to defray homeowner costs. The town is updating its wildfire-protection ordinance; Morgan’s staff can now certify a home as fire-resistant. But just one insurance company, USAA, accepts the certificates. Morgan hopes to see that number grow.
For years, Boulder County, Colorado has bought up forest land, a program originally intended to create trails and recreation areas. Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, called it, “One of the best wildfire mitigation programs is keeping people out of the WUI in the first place.” Since the years of property buyouts, “the number of homes in our WUI is much smaller [than in neighboring communities],” said Jim Webster, who spearheads the county’s adaptation work.
“In part because we have purchased a lot of land in this area —so it’s not available for development — we haven’t approved a new subdivision since the 1970s,” Webster said. His program to mitigate properties takes homeowner applications but “we only accept the best,” based on answers to 50 questions about the property. After inspection, a county official provides a checklist of requirements. As in Pinetop-Lakeside, homeowners completing required work get a certificate.
The work, Webster said, costs an average of more than $6,000 and takes a typical homeowner more than 80 hours. The county has $3 million in state and federal grants for homeowner subsidies. It has awarded about 800 certificates after examining about 25 percent of the area’s 8,000 homes. “Nineteen homes that the county had helped mitigate were involved” in the 2016 Cold Springs Fire, Webster said. “All 19 survived.”
But these local successes aren’t often emulated around the West. Polling data gathered by Stanford researchers show little appetite for using local taxpayer dollars to improve resilience. The poll also showed that people who tend to oppose government intervention also sense less danger: those who described themselves as conservative were less likely to report experiencing wildfire smoke than those with more liberal views.
Doug Teeter, a county supervisor in California’s Butte County, had to flee the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise a year ago. He said townspeople there “like moving to the woods because they like not seeing their neighbors. “On half- or quarter-acre lots that means your vegetation is close to your home. We need to reconsider that. Small acreage can’t have that much vegetation… When density gets high enough, we need to be more aggressive.” He added, “this is horrible, tough public policy that needs to be discussed…. I used to be passionate about the trees. Now I’m passionate about the clearances.”
Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Association, said, “We haven’t seen any government actions that prohibit building for fire,” or regulating construction in the WUI. “I’ve seen it for floods, not fire.” Since 2010, when the state tightened building codes, new homes “have, as a majority, withstood even the worst fires. At this point, the marketplace is going to dictate more of the fire-rebuild issues than the government.”
Janet Ruiz, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, said her industry “gets bashed on both sides. We get legislators who are upset because people don’t get” extra money after a fire, even if “They didn’t contract for it.” And “one the other side… When I go to meetings with fire services they’ll say we shouldn't be [paying for] rebuilding" burned homes. "But that’s not something" insurers can take on, she added — "to restrict building or not.
“There are some areas where [the standard] should be ‘Build at your own risk,’” she said. But whose responsibility is it to say that? The industry's? Not exactly. For insurers, Ruiz concluded, "We can say, 'understand the risk where you build.'"
Edited by Geoff McGhee.
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