Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on November 1, 2017.

Nowhere to Hide

Northern California’s deadly wildfires offer a grim reminder of the threat faced by urban development in fire-prone areas

BY SCOTT SUTHERLAND

In September, Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, talked to Wired about the 2017 wildfire season and the large fires burning in the western part of the state. Wildfires had scorched more than a million acres in the region over the summer, and were burning on another half-million acres in September. In a wide-ranging conversation, Higuera emphasized that the current fire season in Montana and across the West, despite its apparent magnitude and the raft of headlines it generated, wasn’t that unusual. There had been several heavy fire seasons in Montana since 2000, he said, and when viewed on the longer timeline of natural phenomena, it was reasonable to expect larger burns, like this year’s events, on a fairly regular basis.

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Higuera was also asked if most urban residents in fire-affected parts of the West were safe. “I give a cautious yes,” he replied, before adding, “there is a risk.”

Just days later, that risk was made abundantly clear. On October 8, wind-driven wildfires raced out of the hills and across parts of seven counties in the Northern California wine country. Communities in the city of Santa Rosa were particularly hard hit by the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed thousands of structures and killed 22 people. The Tubbs Fire was one of nearly two dozen fires that flared across the state over a matter of days, collectively burning hundreds of square miles, destroying an estimated 8,400 structures, and claiming 42 lives as of October 22, making it the deadliest series of fires in state history. With the fires mostly contained, officials in late October estimated insured losses at more than a billion dollars. According to Cal Fire, the four major fires that blew up on October 8 all rank in the top 20 in state history in terms of number of structures destroyed, with the Tubbs Fire now topping the list at 5,300—double the next-most-destructive, the Oakland Fire Storm of 1991, which remains the costliest wildfire in U.S. history, at about $2.7 billion in 2016 dollars.

Santa Rosa wasn’t quite the urban landscape imagined by Higuera, but it was close. Many of the neighborhoods that burned upended conventional perceptions of development in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), which is often portrayed as exurban collections of thinly distributed homes dotting semi-wild areas, or isolated cul-de-sacs backing up against fire-prone canyons. By contrast, Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park was a densely settled suburban area that included schools, fitness centers, self-storage facilities, and breweries—the kind of area that residents in fire country like to think of as a safe zone.

But the fast-moving Tubbs Fire—Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann estimated that some of the October 8 fires, primed by low humidity and driven by near-hurricane-force winds, spread at 200 feet per second—reduced block after block of Coffey Park and similar neighborhoods to powdery gray ash. Photos of the suburban destruction contained the shock of something new, even if we’ve seen it many times before: the 1961 Bel Air Fire in Los Angeles that destroyed 484 homes; Oakland in 1991; the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed nearly 400 homes in Colorado Springs; or last year’s wildfires in Tennessee that burned an estimated 2,400 structures and killed 14 people. Santa Rosa is the latest event to remind us that fire-prone areas aren’t defined by the kind of development that happens to exist on or near them; they are defined solely by the regular or periodic occurrence of fire, which is indiscriminate in its choice of fuel to perpetuate itself, whether it’s pine barren, chaparral, or well-tended subdivision.

SOUNDING THE ALARM

Calls to rethink California’s approach to development and wildfire management have begun, as they have so often in the past when fire has claimed lives and property. Noting a state law that requires cities and counties to develop policies that address risks posed by climate change—a frequently cited factor in the incidence and severity of modern wildfires—a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times observed that many of California’s urban areas, including Coffey Park, were not designated as high-risk wildfire zones by the state, and thus not subject to new building requirements that include fire-resistant materials such as tile roofs. “Nobody expected a fire to sweep through a city,” the Times’ editors wrote. “The fires around Santa Rosa must surely be a wake-up call that suburbia has to be made more fire resistant.” Land- and fire-management practices are also under scrutiny, with calls for more proactive thinning of fuels in fire-prone areas and for investment in fire-resilient communications and alert systems.

But there are also prominent voices who would urge us not to hold our breath in the hope of realizing visionary, large-scale change. Stephen Pyne, a wildfire historian at Arizona State University and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, sounded a note of dismay in a recent piece on newsweek.com, where he lamented the impact that California has had on wildfire policy nationwide. “The California model makes sense if your primary land use is urban sprawl,” he wrote. “If, however, you need to manage a fire-adapted land, it’s a formula for failure because ultimately you control fire by controlling the countryside; even in cities, it’s zoning and the welter of codes that govern the built environment that allow firefighters to be effective.” In the wake of the recent California fires, we can expect investigations and proposed technological fixes, Pyne wrote, and we can hope for reform of the fundamentals to help us better cope with the specific threats fire poses to our communities. Most likely, though, he added—with an eye toward more than a century’s worth of wildfire policy in the U.S.—we should “expect none.”

Statistic on the four California win country wildfires and how much damage they caused.

This would seem to be the time to expect something. It can be argued that, as a year-in, year-out threat, wildfire poses a greater risk to life and property in the U.S. than all other natural hazards combined. Wildfires burn, on average, twice as many acres per fire as they did in the 1990s, and burn twice as long. The average number of structures burned per year has more than tripled since 1990. A third of all Americans live in areas at risk of wildfire, and an estimated 60 percent of all new homes constructed in the U.S. since 1990 have been built on fire-prone land. Wildfire is not just a Western problem; communities from the Southeast to New England face significant wildfire threats (albeit from fires that tend to be smaller than those in the West), but few are developed with fire in mind.

Before the California fires struck, the season’s leading wildfire headline was that the U.S. Forest Service’s wildland fire suppression costs for fiscal 2017 had topped $2 billion for the first time, a milestone that prompted U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to renew his call for Congress to overhaul the way the agency’s fire suppression efforts are funded. Suppression costs account for well over half the agency’s budget, more than triple the percentage two decades ago. Overall funding for the Forest Service remains relatively flat, Perdue said, resulting in a hoarding of funds for anticipated suppression at the expense of preventive measures to reduce the fire hazard. “It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load…for future fires to feed on,” Perdue said in September. “That’s wrong.”

As cities are threatened by more and larger wildfires, though, the wildland mitigation efforts listed by Perdue will need to be matched, if not exceeded, by urban preparation, along with a comprehensive rethinking of what constitutes fire-safe in urban and suburban settings. “Those houses are like highly concentrated energy packages just waiting to ignite,” Donald Falk, a wildland fire researcher at the University of Arizona, told the Los Angeles Times, describing Coffey Park. “In that wind-driven situation, I think the predictions of what’s fire-safe and what’s not kind of go out the window.”

Falk told the Times that, whatever policy changes may come out of the fires that wreaked havoc in Santa Rosa and elsewhere, he hopes officials can act quickly. “The shelf life of an event like this, as devastating as it seems now, eventually will dissipate,” he said. “Now is the time to have that dialogue.”

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images