Skip to content Skip to navigation

“Fire Amnesia” Hurts Efforts to Make Wildland Housing More Resilient

Felicity Barringer
Dec 20 2019

Even after record-setting fires devastated communities around the West, resistance to policies to reduce housing vulnerability persists, particularly if they constrain development.

Embed from Getty Images

The remnants of homes in Paradise, California after the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures in November 2018.   Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

By Felicity Barringer

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.

 

Treating Homes Receives Less Attention Than Forest Health

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.

“The rest of us are thinking, ‘These are forest fires, so the problem is in the forest.’ It’s the house, dammit, it’s the house.”

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.

 

Beyond Wildfires, Housing Nationwide Faces Ample Disaster Risks

Rating Disaster Resilience

The insurance company FM Global calculates an annual resilience index of locations around the world.

Map of California zip codes where insurers cannot cancel policies for one year.

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.

 

In the West, Skepticism Over Measures to Increase Wildfire Safety

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.

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.

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.”

 

‘I’m Living Here and the Fire Department is Going to Take Care of Everything’

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.”

Boulder County extends high into the Rocky Mountains from the city of Boulder, above

Limiting Growth in Wildland Areas Boulder County extends high into the Rocky Mountains from the city of Boulder, above. The county has bought up forest land, in a program originally intended to create trails and recreation.   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.”

 

With Little Time to Do Mitigation, Administrators Mix Threats and Rewards

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.

wildfire-resilience planning page

Amid Deep Forest Cover, a Model Community The wildfire-resilience planning page on Pinetop-Lakeside created by Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire, a joint project of Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International.   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.

 

“Firewise” Program Offers a Standard Set of Approaches to Harden Property

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.”


Managing the “Home Ignition Zone”

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.

Illustration showing bands of ignition zones around a house.

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.

Source: National Fire Protection Association

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.”

 

Woodlands Offer Privacy, and Thinning Them Can Be Unpopular

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.”

“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.'"

 

and the west logo

 

Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

 

Read More on Wildfire & the West

Can Prescribed Fires Head Off Devastating Wildfires?

An academic study supports the notion that one way to mitigate wildfires is clearing out trees, brush and brambles in the forest understory, often with prescribed burns. But proponents face a slew of obstacles, from pollution concerns and shrinking seasonal windows, to the vast scale of undertreated western forestland.

 

Are Forest Managers Robbing the Future to Pay for Present-Day Fires?

In the federal government, wildfires have a lesser claim on disaster funds. As fires burn with greater magnitude and frequency, the cost of fighting them is increasingly borne by money earmarked for prevention.

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Astride Two Wests, Colorado County Faces a Tricky Economic Balance

With outdoor recreation in its east and fossil-fuel resources on the west, can Garfield County develop an economy that serves both ends?


 

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Maya Burke, Kate Selig, Francisco L. Nodarse, Devon Burger, and Madison Pobis

Articles Worth Reading: October 20, 2020

Revitalizing Indigenous Stewardship with Cultural Burning on the central California coast, the Amah Matsun Land Trust seeks to effectively manage fire-prone lands using the stewardship of Indigenous groups. In the Quiroste Valley, the Native Stewardship Corps (NSC) are working in uplands above the meadow and riparian valley that contain dense stands of Douglas fir and coyote brush with little to no understory. These stands have encroached upon the open coastal prairie grassland. Due to the dense canopy cover, little sunlight reaches the forest floor, thus allowing little to no presence of grasses and forbs. This reduces biodiversity, and threatens the coastal prairie, which was once much more widespread. Cultural burning could help restore the grasslands. The land trust plans a Zoom conference to discuss traditional Native American land management. Amahmutsun Land Trust

Environmental Activists and Hoover Dam Operators Are Joining Forces, as hydro-electric industry groups and environmental activists have publicly committed to collaborate to minimize the environmental harm of existing hydro-electric dams. This union of warring factions from industry and the environmental movement is an instance in a fledgling but growing trend of large-scale industries, joining non-profit organizations and institutions to explicitly address the best ways to counter the threat of runaway climate collapse. The New York Times

Washington State Firm to Abandon Coal, Which May Keep Coal Pollution Going in Montana. Puget Sound Energy’s plan to sell for $1 its stake in Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station needs approval by agencies in both states. If it gets them, it can meet Washington State rules to abandon coal-burning resources by 2025. Montana’s NorthWestern Energy, which wants to keep one unit of the plant going until 2042, would have more say in its future. E&E News

A Push for Statehood For the Navajo Nation comes as congressional Democrats raising the possibility of making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into states, voices from the Southwest are reviving the idea of a state, perhaps called Dinétah, to give the region a more powerful voice in national affairs, and increase federal payments. Indian Country Today

Reaching Beyond El Niño Observations, Scientists Examine Distant Ocean Conditions as a key think to predict Western droughts, particularly those affecting the Colorado River, two years in advance. Researchers looked at the most extreme drought years in the past 120 years and found they almost always followed a distinct pattern of unusual warm spells in the tropical reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. up to four years in advance, followed by warming in the northern Pacific two year later. Science

Pursuing Endangered Salmon, California Sea Lions Range Deeper into the Columbia River. NOAA fisheries and researchers at the University of Washington published a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology detailing increased predation of salmon by sea lions. The Columbia River is home to the Chinook Salmon Run, an extremely important ecological niche for the movement of nitrogen throughout the watersheds of the West coast. California sea lions, facing hunger in their more coastal native habitats, have in recent years begun traveling farther and farther upstream to hunt salmon. These hunting migrations are most prevalent before they depart for southern California breeding grounds. Devdiscourse

As Consensus Favoring Prescribed Burns Increases, Rates of Controlled Fires Still Fall in Washington State. Like many states in the West facing challenging fire seasons, Washington has been slow to financially invest in the requirements for effective controlled burning. Crosscut

Articles Worth Reading: October 12, 2020

California Announces Plan to Conserve 30% of State’s Land and Coastal Waters by 2030 as part of the state’s fight against climate change. The effort comes on the back of a growing movement by environmental groups, scientific organizations and the National Geographic Society to advance the “30 x 30” goal: preserve at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. While the decision drew criticism from Republicans, environmentalists praised the announcement as key toward addressing a host of environmental issues in the state. San Jose Mercury News

Montana Asks Court to Throw Out Major Public Lands Decisions after federal judge ousted Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) acting director from his post. The decisions include BLM plans to open up hundreds of thousands of acres for oil and gas drilling. In response, the Department of the Interior argues that former BLM director William Perry Pendley took “no relevant acts” to be thrown out. Pendley served unlawfully for 424 days. The Hill

EPA Grants Oklahoma Environmental Oversight in Indian Country. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s request to the EPA allows the state — not Indigneous nations — to regulate environmental issues in Indian Country. While the decision was welcomed by Oklahoma’s state oil and gas industry, Cherokee Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation quickly denounced the decision. “This was a swift move meant to circumvent the federal government's trust, duty and obligation to consult with the tribal nations concerned,” wrote Muscogee Nation’s press secretary in a statement. Washington Post Indian Country Today

Experts Developing Plan for Trout Recovery in Los Angeles. Biologists and engineers are setting the state for a “fish passage” through downtown L.A. that would aid in the recovery of the Southern California steelhead trout, a threatened species. Concrete and treated urban runoff in the L.A. River channel blocks the trout from returning to local rivers to spawn. The recovery effort could rival the return of the gray wolf, bald eagle and California condor. Los Angeles Times

The Votes Cast, a Fat Bear is Crowned in Alaska. Every year, the Katmai National Park and Preserve holds Fat Bear Week, an online competition that allows individuals to vote on large bears, in an effort to raise awareness about the park’s wildlife. This year’s champion? Bear 747 (named in reference to the Boeing 747), weighing in at more than 1,400 pounds. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: October 6, 2020

The Royal Bank of Canada is Withholding Financing for Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing its “particular ecological and social significance and vulnerability.” This policy change may be part of a paradigm shift for major financial institutions, which finance and drive the majority of oil and gas development. The bank’s pledge comes after the U.S. Department of the Interior’s recent decision to open up the refuge for development. RBC joins five major U.S.-based banks in this decision to not finance development in the ANWR, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase. The Narwhal

A Devastating Fire Season Just Keeps Going: to date, California wildfires have consumed four million acres as 8,200 fires in August killed 31 people and destroyed more than 8,400 buildings. Burning through 100,000 acres, the August complex fire in Mendocino County is the largest on record, “at nearly five times the size of New York City.” It is only 54 percent contained by weary fire fighters. Increasing temperatures exacerbate the fires’ intensity; their effects are being experienced at greater distances, as hazardous air quality conditions extend across the continent. The Guardian

An in-depth video shows the severity of California’s fires and what to worry about now, like mudslides. San Jose Mercury News

Canadian Indigenous Groups Looking to Invest in the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline which Indigenous groups in the United States oppose. Four First Nations groups in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan are pursuing an equity interest in the pipeline, signing a memorandum between the pipeline developer, TC Energy, and Natural Law Energy, which represents the Three Maskwacis Nations and the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, in Alberta, and the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan. The idea is to create a long-term partnership. Neither party explicitly commented on the Indigenous-activist led resistance movement to the pipeline. Members of the Lakota Nation and the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux who led a delegation to the U.S.-Canadian border for an anti-pipeline prayer ceremony in mid-summer, described a Native employee of TC Energy “a traitor.” Kallanish Energy Billings Gazette

Snake River Dams Not Going Anywhere After Federal Decision to Release More Water for as much as 16 hours daily to help stabilize the population of fish, particularly Chinook salmon, that have suffered serious decline in the entire Columbia River watershed. The plan adopted by three federal agencies won praise from groups representing farmers and loggers, but skepticism from conservationists and dismissal from the Nez Perce tribe. Boise State Public Radio

Solar Energy Expansion Is in Overdrive in West Texas; the state has 17 solar facilities, including 13 with capacities of at least 100 megawatts of power. With intense sun and large swaths of empty land where major solar farms can spread out, West Texas has long been ideal for solar development. Texas’ free-market approach and loose regulations encourage all big electricity projects, including solar. The cost of developing solar farms has dropped about 40 percent in Texas in the last five years, according to an industry association. Texas Observer

Clam Gardens, Revived on the Beaches of British Columbia, are expanding crustacean habitat using an age-old Native practice of flattening the shoreline with small rock walls and tilling the sand to improve aeration. Using these methods and removing predators like the sea star allows the Wsáneć, Hul’q’umi’num, and Stz’uminus First Nations to expand the habitat for butter, littleneck, and horse clams, plus crabs, chitons, seaweeds, and other useful species. Generations of Native land stewards continued this practice even when overrun by colonial settlers who passed laws criminalizing the work. The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: September 29, 2020

Knowing How to Fight the Megafires of Climate Change is the daunting task facing firefighters today. Wildfires are behaving in unprecedented ways and the traditional ways to fight them are proving inadequate. The Yellowstone Fire of 1988 was a harbinger of what is now an annual series of catastrophes. Hotter, drier weather increases the scale, power, and frequency of wildfires, which spawn tornadoes and thunderstorms. Once unheard-of Arctic fires produce large volumes of greenhouse gases; every degree Celsius of temperature rise increases lightning activity by 12 percent. Yale Environment 360

Recycling Helps Rid Us of Forever Plastics? No, Say Some Experts. Much recycled plastic, from yogurt containers to bags and “clamshells,” heads not for a new life but landfills. One former executive told a PBS Frontline investigation that selling the idea of recycling meant they could sell plastic. While all used plastic can be repurposed, it’s expensive to pick it up, sort it, and melt it down. KQED

New Mexico Resists a New License for Nuclear Waste Storage Facility. A New Jersey company wants a 40-year license to build a multi-billion-dollar complex near Carlsbad. It would store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could allow up to 10,000 canisters of spent fuel from nuclear plants around the country. State officials told Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the firm’s analysis is incomplete, the site is geologically unsuitable and environmental justice issues are being ignored. Associated Press

A 37-Year-Old Public Trust Doctrine to Preserve Inland Lakes just got a new look from the Nevada Supreme Court. In the precedent-setting 1983 Mono Lake case, the California Supreme Court ruled that the public trust interest in the water, fish and wildlife of the lake meant diversion of the lake’s tributaries must be controlled. Nevada’s Supreme Court just took a different tack, saying the state could not reshuffle existing rights to the Walker River to protect the receding Walker Lake. Ninth Circuit federal appeals judges had send sent the case to the Nevada court; it’s now headed back to federal court. Las Vegas Sun Nevada Independent

Local Control Was the Hallmark of California’s Groundwater Law, but a new study shows the local plans tend to favor large agribusiness over small farmers. Only about 12 percent of 260 new groundwater sustainability agencies include representatives from tribal groups or small farms not already affiliated with local irrigation districts. Estuary

After Four Decades of Combat Over the Efforts to Drill for Oil Under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Appear Headed for Success. With the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous groups of the region at issue, a month ago, the Interior Department cleared the way for bidding on drilling rights. But the voices of the Iñupiat people — some of whom welcome the chance to earn revenue from lands that were once theirs — and the Gwich’in people, for whom the caribou of the region are both a nutrition and cultural linchpin — are seldom heard. A collaboration with of the The Threshold podcast, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reveal

Aquariums are Accustomed to Showing the Ocean’s Shallows, Not Its Depths. Now, around the world, they are figuring out how to display the mysterious and remarkable animals of the deep sea. Two years hence, California’s Monterey Bay aquarium hopes to create the first large-scale exhibition of deep sea life and the impact that warming and seabed mining may have on the unseen world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: September 23, 2020

Establishing a New Indigenous Wildfire Task Force is the goal of a California State Senate candidate, Jackie Fielder. As “fire season” becomes increasingly intense, the need for effective fire management practices increases, and Indigenous groups’ knowledge becomes a beacon for forest managers.. Fielder’s plan is based on the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, which shows how controlled burns help prevent destructive wildfires. SF Weekly

Recent Fires Destroyed Much of Washington State’s Crucial Sage Grouse Habitat An expert on the birds said that the state’s population of less than 1,000 grouse may have been cut in half as fires burned more than 600,000 acres of forest and sagebrush rangeland this year. Overall, scientists have issued a report showing that grouse populations in nine states have declined 44 percent in five years. Mongabay

Los Angeles Is Working to Turn Recycled Plastic into Pavement and Parking Lots. Three years ago, when China announced it would take no more recycling waste, the federal Energy Department started looking for ways to dispose of the excess piling up in American dumps. The city is working on a project to create asphalt containing recycled plastic and has experimented with the asphalt mix on parking lots and small roads. It is now planning to use it on a major street near Walt Disney Concert Hall. E&E News

The Southwest Is Suffering a Major Bird Die-Off, as thousands of migratory birds have been found dead in recent weeks. The cause of this mass die-off remains unknown, but some theorize that raging western wildfires forced many birds to reroute their migrations, and that exceptionally dry conditions have greatly reduced the presence of insects, birds’ main source of food. Large avian mortality during migration is rare and few instances have been as large as this one. High Country News

Microsoft Has Launched the Second Phase of an Underwater Data Center Experiment , extending work done off the West Coast in 2015 to explore the feasibility of submarine computing. Their Natick Project intended to explore underwater data centers’ potential economic and environmental advantages relative to those on dry land. The findings: a sealed container on the ocean floor could improve overall reliability, given that oxygen and humidity corrode terrestrial centers as they do other modern infrastructure. The team also hopes that offshore data centers could support faster information retrieval over interconnected networks. CMSWire

A “Language Keepers” Podcast Illuminates the Struggle to Keep Indigenous Languages Alive in California. Two centuries ago, as many as 90 languages and 300 dialects were spoken in California. Today only half this number remain. This series explores the current state of four Indigenous languages that are among the most threatened in the world: Tolowa Dee-ni’, Karuk, Wukchumni, and Kawaiisu. It features stories of families and communities across California working to revitalize their Native languages and cultures. Emergence Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: September 15, 2020

While the Jordan Cove Gas Export Terminal Has Received Federal Go-Aheads to Operate, lawsuits, other permitting delays and the unstable economics of natural gas make the export terminal’s future uncertain. Even if Pembina Pipeline Corp., developer of the planned terminal, prevails over state officials and environmentalists in court, the project faces a fragile liquid natural gas market — U.S. exports have decreased about 61% from January to July. ”It is increasingly difficult to permit and build these types of projects ... whether it's market demand or public outcry," said a Western Environmental Law Center lawyer. E&E News

For a Second Year, a Landmark Plastic Recycling Measure Fails to gain sufficient support in the California legislature. The bill would have made it a state goal to reduce waste from single-use products by 75 percent, and required that single-use products be recyclable or compostable. The final 37-18 vote at the last minutes of the session fell three votes short of the tally it needed. KQED

The Disappearance of Aleutian Island Otters Frays Alaskan Waters’ Food Web. Over the past 40 years, more than 90 percent of sea otters have vanished from the Aleutians’ delicate seascape. There, otters are more protector than predator, holding the entire ecosystem together by feasting on destructive sea urchins at a rate of up to 1,000 a day. Fewer otters, more urchins. Climate change makes things worse, as reported by a paper in the journal Science. Populations of sea urchins have boomed, carpeting the sea floor in spiny spheres that mow down entire forests of kelp. Now the living, red-algae reefs on which the swirling stands of kelp once stood are in peril. Softened by warming and acidifying waters, the coral-like structures have quickly succumbed to the urchins’ tiny teeth. The New York Times

Many Joshua Trees Were Doomed When Lightning Strikes hit the Mojave National Preserve. On August 15, the first day of California’s lightning siege, thunderstorms rolled across the Mojave National Preserve. The Cima Dome wildfire turned the preserve into a Joshua tree graveyard. Most of the charred trees remain standing, tangible, eerily beautiful ghosts in place of living trees with their crooked beauty. The ghosts will wither and the 43,273 acres of the Dome fire will be despoiled. Los Angeles Times

Getting California Grapes Off the Vine Before Fire and Smoke Ruin Them means depending on vineyard workers who are largely undocumented, and in terms of COVID-19 risk, poorly protected. The wildfires, which have so far collectively burned more than 1.6 million acres in Northern California, sparked right at the beginning of Sonoma County’s grape harvest. And they’re adding to the hazards already faced by some of the country’s poorest and least visible laborers. Gabriel Machabanski, associate director of a workers’ rights organization in Sonoma County, said “Since March, there has been so little work for low-wage workers such as day laborers and seasonal farmworkers; the current situation lends itself, more so than usual, to exploitation by employers.” A photo essay: nighttime harvesting near fires. Civil Eats

One of the Worst COVID-19 Hotspots Is Now an Epicenter of Effective Contact Tracing. After infections are identified, a team of 35 people fans out after to rapidly test people, isolate the infected and visit the homes of any who may have been exposed. Both the White Mountain Apache and nearby Navajo Nation experienced some of the country’s worst infection rates, yet both began to turn things around, in part with robust contact tracing. “We’re seen a significant decline in cases on the reservation at the same time that things were on fire for the rest of the state,” said one local epidemiologist. High Country News

Feral Pigs Change Ecosystems and Human Lives, from Texas to Montana to Saskatchewan. There are as many as 9 million feral swine across the U.S.; populations have expanded from about 17 states to 38 over the last three decades. Texas has about 1.5 million and spends upwards of $4 million annually controlling them, with little hope of eradication. Florida, Georgia, and California also have vast populations. “Pig populations are completely out of control,” said one expert. “The efforts to deal with them are about one percent of what’s currently needed.” The province of Saskatchewan may soon have more wild pigs than people. Montana’s new education campaign, “Squeal on Pigs,” is designed to push residents to report sightings to 24-hour hotline, alerting specialists in pig elimination. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: August 31, 2020

Upending Plans to Mine Precious Metals Near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers Throws a New Hurdle. The Corps, which a month ago said the Pebble Mine would pose no environmental risk, now says it would mean trouble for the sockeye salmon that thrive in the area. After opposition from presidential son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who have both been fishing in Bristol Bay, the Corps threw a new hurdle that could thwart federal permitting, finding that “discharge at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources.” Also, a scientist studying the robustness of the sockeye population reports that an unusual, ancestral breed of salmon would be at risk from the mine. E&E News Hakai Magazine

The Redwoods in California’s Oldest State Park Withstood a Wildfire that tore through the area. Reporters found that fears were unrealized that many of the trees, some up to 2,000 years old, had been destroyed. And a relieved scientist pointed out that redwood forests evolved to withstand fire. Associated Press

Colorado’s Governor Is Focused on Promoting San Luis Valley Farmers’ New Approach to dealing with the increasing aridity of an area that is the epicenter of the state’s drought. Quinoa and hemp replace barley and tomatoes, and farmers form local districts to control groundwater use. Denver Post

California Sues to Block New Federal Rules Allowing Farmers Access to So Much Water from the state’s largest river systems that extinction for the delta smelt and two different salmon species could be inevitable. Two huge networks of dams and canals — whose construction led directly to the dwindling of fish populations — control water distribution to farms that supply one-third of the country’s vegetables and half of its nuts and fruit; scientists have been pressured to speed up their evaluations of the threat. KQED

Three Texas Cities Are Models of Efficient and Innovative Water Use. Austin adopted a 100-year water plan in 2018 calling for such advanced conservation and recycling programs that the city anticipates supplying a healthy share of its future water demand by reengineering its water system as a water collection and recycling loop. El Paso cut its per-capita water consumption from 205 gallons daily 30 years ago to 129 gallons today. Some of its conservation practices: subsidizing the replacement of water-wasting bathroom fixtures and regulating lawn watering. San Antonio subsidizes the distribution of digital water-flow sensors and encourages the use of native plants to replace the thirstier show species in local gardens. Circle of Blue

“Keep Immigrant Bees Out.” Environmentalists Want Honey Bees Barred from public lands in Utah. Beekeepers’ honey-bee hives sometimes travel to pollinate crops elsewhere — particularly California’s almond crop — before returning to Utah’s national forests to forage in areas free of pesticides. But honeybees are non-native. Environmentalists are petitioning to ban them from these areas, saying they may spread disease and put unnecessary pressure on native bees. Salt Lake Tribune

Shifting the Balance of Power Between Preserving Birds and Developing Energy. A 1.5-million-acre oil-and-gas development proposed in Wyoming is in the middle of a superhighway for migrating birds, and a court’s insistence on retaining federal penalties for accidental bird deaths from power lines and wind turbines. A potential go-ahead from the Interior Department could be coming soon on the project after six years of federal environmental reviews. The decision, which quoted the Harper Lee novel, saying “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird,” could dictate how companies operate in Wyoming for the next decade and what happens when they kill birds. E&E Daily

A Trout With Feathers: Looking At the West’s Only Aquatic Songbird. A photo essay on dippers, small gray birds that bob up and down on rocks, dive into streams, and resurface with insects in their beaks. Audubon Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 17, 2020

Final Approval to Drill Arctic Wildlife Refuge clears the way for an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on the 1/6 million-acre plain. Four decades of fights over the refuge have paralleled four decades of science showing the burning of fossil fuels is heating the air and the oceans and changing the climate. These changes may make it difficult to sustain the infrastructure needed for drilling. Elsewhere in Alaska, ConocoPhillips is using “chillers” to keep the warming climate from thawing the tundra under its Willow oil drilling platform on the North Slope. Washington Post Bloomberg News

California Heat Sets Records, Creates Rolling Blackouts As Fires Spawn Firenados. The combination of intense heat, dry vegetation and lightning storms has the state struggling on several fronts. The unusual and extreme phenomenon of a fire-generated tornado occurred on August 15 in the Lake Tahoe area as a new fire quickly spun out of control. A few days earlier, the Lake Fire outside Los Angeles spawned its own firenado. Rolling blackouts hit the state while in Death Valley, the temperature hit a record 130 degrees. Los Angeles Times National Public Radio Desert Sun

Arizona’s Drought Intensified as Seasonal Monsoons Again Turn Into “Nonsoons.” With temperatures in Phoenix exceeding 110 degrees for days on end and the three-month period ending in June was the second hottest and third driest in 125 years. Populous Maricopa County, including Phoenix and Scottsdale, is in a severe drought. The impact on the water levels at Lake Mead, which is now at 40 percent of capacity, will mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River. Arizona Water News Arizona Republic

Some Oregon Forest Land Would Be Lost as Spotted Owl Habitat if a federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposal becomes final. The proposal would take 204,653 acres, or 2 percent of the total of 9.6 Million Acres, from the area of ancient forests designated as critical habitat and set aside as habitat for the endangered owl. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Ice Disappearing, Pacific Walruses Are Moving Sooner and Sooner to Beaches of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. They just gathered at Point Lay at the end of July, earlier than ever before. The walruses had evolved to use floating ice as platforms for foraging and rearing their young. But for the past 13 years, after the first year of a record-low extent of sea ice, they have been moving to the Point Lay site by the tens of thousands every summer. Arctic Today

A Colorado Lab Works to Prepare the National Electric Grid for a Renewable Future. A scientist used this metaphor to describe the challenge of retrofitting the three power grids to let them handle the upcoming changes: It's like updating a reliable 1957 Chevrolet for the complex technologies and climate-related hazards of the 21st century. What was recently unveiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado is a proving ground for the high-tech creations and will test the impacts of battery- and hydrogen-powered energy storage systems and large increases of renewable energy. Scientific American

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Oct 21 2020 | CivicPulse | Center News, Happenings, Topics of the West
Bill Lane Center partnership with CivicPulse yields new report on patterns of local protest against coronavirus restrictions across the United States
Oct 20 2020 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Indigenous fire practices in California; Dam operators and activists join forces; Montana coal prospects dim; Statehood for the Navajo Nation? and more recent environmental reads from around the West.
Oct 12 2020 | ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
California plans to conserve 30% of state’s land and water; Montana asks court to throw out major public lands decisions; EPA grants Oklahoma environmental oversight over Indian Country; Los Angeles plans trout recovery and more recent environmental reads from around the West.