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Southern California Firestorms Emphasize Need For Mitigation

William Fulton on
Dec 1, 2003

The wildfires of late October and early November – which some fire experts claim were the worst in the state’s history – have stimulated a whole new round of debate about whether and how to permit urban development in areas with naturally high fire risk.

Local government officials throughout Southern California are responding to the conflagration with a variety of steps designed to increase firefighting capacity and possibly building standards. Meanwhile, state building and fire officials are also taking potentially important steps that could lead to stricter building and development standards.

At the center of this debate, however, lies a fundamental question that always confronts California when development and nature collide: Avoidance, minimization, or mitigation? On the fire question – as with earthquake hazards, wetlands, and any number of other environmental issues – the scales are tilting pretty clearly toward mitigation.

The choice on fire risk mirrors the choice embedded in wetlands regulations, but fire is a different kind of a natural resource consideration. Wetlands regulations provide the three choices of avoidance, minimization, and mitigation, and it is clear which alternative is preferable. The best alternative is to avoid any damage to wetlands altogether by channeling development elsewhere. Second-best is to minimize the damage through a sensitive design that takes out the smallest amount of wetlands possible. Last on this list – but still acceptable under some circumstances – is mitigation, which essentially means trying to make up for the loss of wetlands by taking steps to rebuild or enhance other wetlands on-site or elsewhere.

California’s fire managers would like urban development to follow the same hierarchy in fire hazard areas. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has long sought to persuade rural local governments to deny subdivisions in forests and other high fire-risk areas – thus adopting avoidance as the preferred strategy. The state’s fire managers claim that avoidance allows them to do their job better because the presence of structures in the vicinity of a fire forces firefighters to alter their entire strategy from controlling the burn to protecting the structures.

But knowing that a hillside might burn at some time in the future is not the same as seeing a marsh full of birds. With fire safety, avoidance has always been a tough argument to win. Plus, people like to live in pretty places, and most pretty places in California are prone to fire. Additionally, rural county governments are loathe to restrict development in ways that appear anti-property rights.

Finally – and perhaps more importantly in the 21st Century – California has become so populous that it is probably impossible to accommodate more growth without putting a lot of people in the path of fires.

Over the last two decades, California’s population growth has driven new development deeper and deeper into natural wildlands previously undisturbed by human habitation. A generation or two ago, new development in California took place primarily on agricultural land where farmers had already altered many natural resources and natural hazards by leveling the terrain and removing native plants. This is still true in the Central Valley, but in our largest metropolitan areas, little farmland remains on which to build.

In Southern California, the "urban-wildland interface" now encompasses a vast ring on the interior edge of the region stretching from the Antelope Valley through San Bernardino and Riverside Counties down to the rural area of eastern San Diego County, which was especially vulnerable in the recent fires.

Given California’s continued population growth – somewhere in the vicinity of half a million people a year, with more than half of that in Southern California – it is inevitable that more and more people will have to live in close proximity to fire risk. In that sense, the urban-wildfire debate is not so much like wetlands as it is like earthquakes: You can’t live in California without taking the risk, so you have to manage the risk through mitigation measures.

Over the past century, mitigating the risk of earthquake damage in California has been a remarkably successful enterprise. Buildings today are much larger – and yet, at the same time – much safer than they used to be. Indeed, one of the safest places to be during a massive earthquake might be in a brand-new skyscraper in downtown San Francisco. Our state regularly withstands major earthquakes – quakes that would kill tens of thousands of people elsewhere in the world – with very few deaths or injuries.

Is it possible to foster that same kind of transformation with fire risk? Such a shift might seem unlikely at first, but it is clearly the direction that California’s public policy is moving. Shortly before the fires, then-Governor Gray Davis signed a bill carried by Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) requiring stricter building standards in high fire hazard areas. Experts say the standards are likely to require the use of fire-resistant materials for all exterior portions of a building, not just the roof. Better management of vegetation in residential areas is also on the rise; the recent fires have caused renewed interest in Oakland for a vegetation-management assessment district in high-fire-risk areas.

The experience of the recent wildfires will likely give more fuel, so to speak, to the mitigation argument. The poster child for fire risk in the recent events was Scripps Ranch, the upscale development in San Diego where a lack of fire mitigation measures seemed to contribute to the destruction of hundreds of homes. By contrast, the poster child for fire safety was Stevenson Ranch near Santa Clarita, a classic new Southern California development that was punched into the urban-wildland interface. Built with a wide variety of mitigation measures — vegetation clearance surrounding the subdivision, eaves sealed with stucco, a system that allows firefighters to pump swimming-pool water — Stevenson Ranch suffered little damage even though a huge fire traveled for miles literally to the doorstep of Stevenson Ranch houses.

Whether we like it or not, it appears that more houses will be built in high fire risk areas in California during the 21st Century. Mitigation may not be preferable to avoidance as a concept. But with 40 million Californians on the horizon, it may be the inevitable approach.