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Can communities learn to live with wildfire?

Why We Wrote This

As highly destructive wildfires become increasingly commonplace, communities throughout the West are having to shift their focus from prevention to adaptation and resilience.

Reed Saxon/AP
A California Highway patrolman verifies the residency of a woman seeking to return to Malibu after Woolsey fire evacuation orders were lifted for the eastern portion of the city on the evening of Nov. 13. In the state’s north, search-and-recovery efforts continued as the Camp fire still burned.

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The severity and late-season timing of the wildfires that have ravaged California this past week caught residents off guard. The Golden State is accustomed to wildfire, but the devastation wrought by the most recent blazes has been exceptional, underscoring trend lines pointing toward longer fire seasons and bigger and more destructive fires. Adapting to this “new abnormal,” as California Gov. Jerry Brown has called it, likely requires a shift in perception. Rather than focusing solely on fire prevention, communities increasingly need to develop plans to learn to live with fire. The steps can range from retrofitting homes with fire-resistant materials to creating natural fire breaks and better systems for warning and evacuation. Some communities have seen success using these methods. But implementation is often patchwork and voluntary, so experts call for a more concerted approach. “Taking action isn’t a small feat” for many people, says Hannah Brenkert-Smith, an environmental sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “But incremental steps make cumulative change.”

It’s news that has an eerie sense of déjà vu: For a second straight fall, multiple, devastating wildfires have broken out in California, fueled by hot, dry conditions and strong winds.

Last fall’s Tubb’s Fire held the record for most destructive wildfire in California’s history for only a year. That distinction now goes to the Camp Fire, which at this point has claimed at least 56 lives, with dozens more still unaccounted for; 8,800 homes; and most of the town of Paradise.

Over the same weekend, fires also raged in Malibu and Ventura County, and California Gov. Jerry Brown referred to them as California’s “new abnormal.” “Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify," Governor Brown said at a press conference this past weekend.

Of course, wildfires are nothing new. But the trends are indeed toward longer fire seasons and bigger and more destructive fires, for a variety of reasons, including climate change and where and how people live.

The good news, say wildfire experts, is that while some of those underlying trends are unlikely to change, there are significant steps that communities can take to adapt to an increasing threat of wildfire. What may be required is a shift in perception: Instead of focusing solely on fire prevention, how do we learn to live with fire, and mitigate the chances that it comes with big costs in property or lives?

“These are flammable places, and fire is a natural part of the system, but people are making this situation worse by both building into those landscapes, and because they’re building in those landscapes, they’re also providing the ignitions that are burning our houses,” says Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “That’s the piece that I think is tractable. With climate change we can throw our hands up in the air and say, wow, that’s a really complex challenge and we’re not going to solve it anytime soon. But we do play a huge role right now in where those fires are starting and what’s vulnerable. And that’s the hopeful part, I think – that we can do something about that.”

There are no guarantees that fire adaptation will make a community safe, especially with the sort of huge, rapidly moving, wind-driven fires that California saw last week. But experts agree that certain steps can go a long way toward mitigating risk. Building with fire-resistant materials and replacing decks, fences, and gutters with non-flammable materials can limit structural damage. Managing vegetation around homes, strategically thinning forested areas near communities, and building in natural fire breaks around where people live can help slow or even halt the spread of wildfire. And implementing and testing good warning and evacuation systems can save lives when fires do get out of control.

A detailed Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Code exists, often used by communities to supplement or inform more local codes. But implementation is often patchwork and voluntary, and experts say a more concerted approach is needed to really make a difference.

“There’s a lot that’s known to increase our chances of surviving a fire,” says Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that has done extensive work on wildfire issues. The key, he says, is getting it done on a broad enough scale to make a difference – which is challenging with the sort of voluntary programs currently in place.

“The biggest danger to your home is when your neighbor’s home goes up in flames,” says Mr. Rasker. “The shift that needs to happen is a shift toward mandatory adherence to regulations – passing regulations that are enforced and done at a landscape scale. That’s still very rare in the West.”

Where mitigation has paid off

One Western community is a notable exception, Rasker notes. San Diego conducts inspections every two years of the more than 42,000 properties that it has deemed at risk from fire and requires property owners to manage vegetation within 100 feet of their homes.

Another is Flagstaff, Ariz., which decided the entire city is in the WUI zone, and therefore needs to adhere to the WUI code – including requiring homes to use flame-retardant materials. The town also approved a $10 million bond to do targeted fuel reduction around the city. A few years later, when a fire broke out and was headed toward Flagstaff, it hit the thinned-out understory and burned out, says Rasker. “They were able to protect the community.”

As a state, California is already at the forefront of wildfire adaptation.

“I look at California as the gold standard for planning and regulation,” says Molly Mowery, the founder of Wildfire Planning International, which, along with Headwaters Economics, started Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire, an effort to help communities plan better.

California, she notes, adopted the WUI code for new buildings built in fire-prone areas, and CalFire does a lot of work to help residents mitigate risks.

“I think the biggest challenge is that we’re playing catch up with a lot of existing development that was not subject to any kind of regulatory code,” says Ms. Mowery. “And historical fire data is now becoming limited in its usefulness when we’re looking ahead at a different pattern of fire in terms of size and severity.”

Events like this past week’s fires in California, which were largely wind-driven, may owe a portion of their severity to hotter, drier conditions, says Max Moritz, a cooperative extension wildfire specialist at the Bren School at the University of California in Santa Barbara. But whether or not they would have occurred in a more normal year, Professor Moritz sees a clear need for communities to focus on how to adapt to fire threats – both with existing housing stock and with land-use and building decisions going forward.

“We have tens of thousands of existing homes that need to be retrofitted,” notes Moritz. “We could have a public campaign to address all the ways homes catch on fire. We do this for earthquakes and flood hazards. It’s not technologically that challenging.”

Designing future communities in fire-safe ways is even clearer – except that the political will to do so is rarely there.

With more fires – like California’s most recent ones – burning in denser areas, and coming with a massive cost in both life and property, Moritz says he wonders if the issue could be reframed as a public safety and public health issue, with people more willing to accept certain guidance and regulation as a result.

Similarly, Rasker notes that as a society, we’ve largely solved the fire threat at an urban level, through complex fire codes. “Somehow, if you build in a very flammable area out in the woods a lot of those regulations don’t apply,” he says. “Why not think about the wildland-urban interface the same way? It’s an urban development in a flammable environment.”

Building ‘cumulative change’

Doing fire-adaptation right can be resource intensive: It can be expensive to retrofit homes, manage vegetation, do targeted thinning, and create good fire-risk maps and land-use planning processes. And research shows that getting people to take the necessary steps to mitigate risk requires more than just education, says Hannah Brenkert-Smith, an environmental sociologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The best results come from repeated engagement and personal interactions with trusted local experts.

But doing that work is also one of the best investments we can make, notes Professor Brenkert-Smith, especially when the high cost of wildfires is taken into account. According to one study, wildfire mitigation saves about $3 for every $1 spent, and about $4 for every $1 when it’s focused on exceeding the code requirements.

“Taking action isn’t a small feat” for many people, says Brenkert-Smith. “But incremental steps make cumulative change.”

Communities looking to become better adapted to fire have a number of existing tools, including some federal mitigation grants – which experts say aren’t taken advantage of as much as they could be for wildfire work – and resources like the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, which launched in 2012 to help communities network and learn from each other. One recent blog entry on the site looked at more than a dozen examples from 2017 and 2018 when mitigation work paid off, from individual homes that were spared thanks to taking the right action, to an entire Utah town that was spared due to 10 acres of targeted fuel treatment.

Of course, sometimes fires move so rapidly, and with such intensity, that few adaptation efforts can help. Part of what made the Camp Fire so costly in terms of lives lost was the lack of warning time and adequate evacuation routes, and experts say that points to one more clear need for land-use planning: better warning systems, local refuges, and, when possible, more evacuation routes.

“These are our Black Saturday events,” says Moritz, referring to the 2009 bushfires in Australia that killed 180 people. “And we need to take a step back and really learn from them.”

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