Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on January 2, 2018.

Build. Burn. Repeat?

The historic devastation wrought by wildfires in 2017 offers a strong case for a new approach to creating wildfire-resistant communities. Experts say we could create those communities today. If that's true, then why is it so hard to get it done?



In early October, fast-moving wildfires whipped across vast swaths of Northern California’s wine country, fueled by tinder-dry conditions and pushed by powerful Santa Ana winds. One of those fires, the Tubbs Fire, tore through densely settled suburban neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa, reducing block after block of homes to piles of gray ash.

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In the days following the blaze, the residents of one of those neighborhoods, Coffey Park, began slipping past a makeshift perimeter to survey the damage, despite the urging of police to stay away. Besides the ash and rubble, most people found little remaining of their incinerated homes.

“This is our only life. Now, it’s just vanished,” Coffey Park resident Veomany Thammasoth told The Press Democrat newspaper, as a relative wheeled away a metal safe dug from the wreckage of the family’s home of 30 years.

At least 1,400 homes in this once-idyllic cluster of cul-de-sacs on Santa Rosa’s northern edge burned, about half of the total destroyed citywide by the Tubbs and Nuns fires, just two of the nearly two dozen wildfires that wreaked havoc in California’s wine country in October. Collectively, the fires destroyed or damaged more than 14,700 homes, 728 businesses, and killed 44 people.

Aerial view the Fountaingrove neighborhood after the Tubbs fire

After image of the Fountaingrove neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, which was overrun by the Tubbs Fire in October. The fire was the largest of more than two dozen wildfires that collectively killed 44 people, destroyed over 6,000 homes and caused an estimated $9 billion in damage across Napa and Sonoma counties. Photograph: Getty Images

Now, as residents turn their focus to recovery, an array of concerns competes for their attention. Fire victims need support, housing, and eventually insurance dollars. Community leaders must decide how to smartly and fairly rebuild, all while coping with a humanitarian crisis and significant property tax revenue losses. In the midst of immense personal loss, victims must wrangle with difficult questions about whether to rebuild, how to rebuild, and if they can even afford to do so.

Lurking in the background, but just as key to residents’ futures, is the question of how Santa Rosa can prevent this from happening again.

Man comforts a woman after a wildfire destroys their home

Residents of a community near Santa Rosa, California, visit the remains of their home after it was destroyed by wildfire in October. Communities hit by wildfire often struggle to find a balance in the recovery effort: helping victims rebuild as quickly and cheaply as possible, but also encouraging them to rebuild in a more resilient manner. Photograph: AP Photo/ Jeff Chiu

This isn’t the first time the city has faced these questions. In 1964, the Hanly Fire laid waste to portions of Santa Rosa along a footprint remarkably similar to the one outlined by the Tubbs Fire in October. However, whereas Hanly descended upon a mostly rural farming region of 30,000 people, Tubbs encountered an urban suburb of 175,000 residents, with thousands of vulnerable structures clustered closely together. As a result, the devastation was magnitudes greater than it was more than 50 years ago.

What will the next wildfire find when it inevitably races down the eastern ridgeline into the new Coffey Park? Can the battered communities of Northern California protect themselves, or are they destined to suffer the same fate over and over again?

WHEN THOSE QUESTIONS are posed to wildfire experts, the answers are both encouraging and painfully frustrating. There are many things that communities could do through land-use planning and building regulation to help stem the destructive potential of wildfire, they say. In fact, many experts believe that we know enough about the science of home ignition right now to largely prevent homes and other structures from burning during wildfires.

“I believe, and I think most professionals in the field believe, that we could build ignition-resistant communities today where people wouldn’t even have to leave their homes during a wildfire—the wildfire could pass right through the neighborhood, and not affect any of the structures,” said Gary Marshall, the former longtime fire marshal in Bend, Oregon, who also teaches wildfire home ignition courses for NFPA. “We hear all the time that this wildfire problem is just a forest health problem, but it’s not. It’s a structure problem.”

Jack Cohen, one of the nation’s preeminent experts in wildfire structure ignition, spent 40 years as a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service studying the various ways that wildfires can cause homes to catch fire. In the vast majority of cases, he says, houses are ignited not through direct contact with the wildfire itself, but by embers blown in from the fire front. Through housing design and construction material choices—metal roofs, screens over gutters, gravel instead of mulch landings, decks made of composite materials rather than wood—homes can be sufficiently hardened to prevent firebrands from setting them ablaze. Keeping the space 100 feet around the home clear of things like dry brush, tall grass, and wooden fences can cut off other paths the fire can take to reach the house. Combined, these methods have demonstrated, in dozens of experiments, the ability to dramatically reduce the likelihood of home ignition, Cohen said. And they are all steps that local governments can mandate through codes and ordinances during the building permitting process. Guidance is available in NFPA 1141, Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Wildland, Rural, and Suburban Areas, and NFPA 1144, Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire.

“We won’t take the probability of ignition down to zero because it isn’t practical to expect that everyone is going to clean pine needles out of their rain gutters or keep firewood off of their decks, just as our fire codes can’t keep people from burning candles next to their linen curtains,” Cohen said. “But the facts are, the conditions that principally determine if a house ignites occur within 100 feet of the house, including the house itself. If we take care of that, we can largely prevent wildfire ignitions.”

In more densely settled areas like Coffey Park, the situation is a bit different—it isn’t the firebrands that cause most of the direct damage, but houses igniting one another in a chain reaction similar to the large urban conflagrations of the 19th century. Firebrands only begin the domino effect. In these urban areas, building regulations to limit firebrand ignition on individual houses, as well as regulations to limit what can go between and around homes, such as types of plants, mulch, windows, sheds, decks, and fencing, can largely prevent the kind of widespread destruction that happened in Coffey Park, Cohen said.

That’s the encouraging news. The frustrating part for longtime advocates is that, for various reasons, too many communities faced with significant wildfire risk do not require homeowners or developers to take any of these measures. Even in places like Santa Rosa, where the risks couldn’t possibly be clearer than they are right now, Cohen believes there’s a good chance that no additional wildfire codes or regulations will be adopted in high-risk areas to reduce the chance of the community burning a third time.

“I have no hope there is going to be major change,” he said bluntly. “But the reason I’m talking to you, and the reason I still stay involved and focused on this even after I’ve retired, is the potential that we can do something. Sometimes I have to compartmentalize away my hope for a rational society.”

Early indications in Santa Rosa suggest that Cohen’s pessimism is justified. According to local news reports, the Santa Rosa City Council has thus far opted to hasten the rebuilding effort by passing emergency measures to speed up the issuing of building permits. That includes waiving fees and granting broad new authorities to city staff to approve permits quickly by limiting public review. The hope is for new buildings to be well underway by spring. Many city officials, including the mayor, support this victim-centric approach.

Others, though, have expressed concern. Santa Rosa Councilwoman Julie Combs argued at a meeting in October that it’s shortsighted to allow homes to be reconstructed before potential changes to fire safety standards can be considered to protect them. “I am very concerned to have places that have just burned down be built in a fire hazard area not meet the new codes that come from our learning from this incident,” Combs said, according to The Press Democrat.

Residents have expressed similar concerns. “Putting our community in a fire-prone area has jeopardized all of us and frightened us horribly,” resident Marsha Taylor told the city council. “We need to slow down, we need to be thoughtful and we need to look at the urban planning mistakes that we have made in the past and rethink them now, and not repeat those errors over and over again.”

But voices of caution seem to be losing out to those wanting to return things to normal as swiftly as possible. Sentiment for the victims and easing their path to recovery is understandably high. “We ought to be listening to what [residents] want, not telling them what’s best for them,” Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a Coffey Park resident, said.

The Press Democrat editorial director, Paul Gullixon, was forceful in his rebuke of any argument for new codes and regulations. “No, we do not ‘have to figure out, plan and put in place’ new rules for [fire victims] to follow. They have a right to build their houses the way they were and…my guess is they don’t need to be reminded of the fire dangers. I can’t imagine anything more frustrating for these residents, after all they have been through, than having people rubbing their hands in hopes of using this fire to correct some past planning mistake. This catastrophe is many things. But it is not an opportunity for a community do-over.”

EVEN AS SCIENCE’S KNOWLEDGE of wildfires and the causes of home ignition grows, the number of homes destroyed by wildfire each year is on the rise.

There is no comprehensive method for tracking how many homes are lost each year in the U.S., but the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) does track loss numbers for the nation’s largest wildfire incidents. Tallying those losses offers a glimpse of a troubling trend. From 1985 to 2000, NIFC data shows that an annual average of 400 residences were destroyed in large wildfires. From 2001 to 2011, the number jumped to 1,354, and during the five years from 2012 to 2016, an annual average of 3,456 residences were destroyed by wildfire. With more than 6,000 homes destroyed last October in California alone, 2017 will again boost the annual averages.

Statistics of the current wildfire trends

Reasons for the sharp increases are multifaceted. A history of aggressively suppressing naturally occurring wildfires has resulted in a surplus of fuel ready to burn in the environment. A warming climate is drying out that excess fuel, prompting fires to start easier and spread faster while making them tougher to extinguish. Meanwhile, people are building more and more structures in fire-prone areas, often referred to as the wildland/urban interface (WUI).

Building trends suggest that finding and enacting strategies for reducing wildfire loss is especially critical. The U.S. Forest Service has estimated that there were about 45 million homes in the WUI in 2005, and projects that figure will increase by 40 percent by 2030. Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based research group that studies wildfire and land development, has reported that vast amounts of developable land in the U.S. are also fire-prone areas, meaning the potential exists for a further escalation of the impact of wildfire on the WUI. It all indicates that if we don’t correct our present trajectory, we could have a much bigger problem on our hands in the not-so-distant future.

How it plays out will depend largely on local communities, which are the primary regulators of development and land use in the WUI, according to Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters. In addition to research, the group also manages the federally funded Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program, which offers free wildfire-related land-use planning assistance to selected communities. Rasker thinks that one of the biggest factors keeping smarter land management practices from taking hold—“the fundamental flaw in the entire system,” as he describes it—is a disconnect between the decisions made by municipal governments regarding land development and the consequences of those decisions.

“There is a strong incentive for local county commissioners to rubber-stamp just about every subdivision—even ones proposed in very dangerous fire-prone areas—to increase property tax revenues,” he explained. “When things go wrong, it’s the firefighters who pay for it, sometimes with their lives, and it’s the federal and state taxpayers who pay the millions of dollars it takes to defend these homes. There has to be some direct link between local governments deciding to permit homes in fire-prone areas, and those local governments paying for at least part of the consequences of those decisions. There is no silver bullet [for instilling smarter land-use policies in communities], but that one comes close. If you can fix that, you could fix many of these problems.”

Rasker doesn’t think that there’s much legislative appetite to punish communities that have just suffered wildfire losses by making them fork over yet more money, but he does think the federal government could start making grant money contingent on complying with land-use rules, similar to how it regulates hospitals, housing grants, and highway funds. “Montana didn’t used to have a speed limit, and you could have an open alcoholic container in your car,” he said. “Then the federal government threatened to cut off our federal highway funds. Now we have an open container law and a speed limit. We were kicked in line. Are there ways we could incentivize good land-use planning?”

Aside from the promise of additional tax dollars, impediments remain that can prevent communities from enacting smarter land-use principles, experts say. Hostility to regulation, cost concerns, and a poor understanding of how and why homes burn in wildfires are all significant barriers. “The bottom line is we need to change our behaviors, and that starts with education,” says Marshall, the former Bend, Oregon, fire marshal. “We have to get the right people in the right positions to understand the facts so we can start to move on this issue. Lawmakers are homeowners, too.”

Bend is one example of a success story. The city has incrementally enacted a series of wildfire mitigation measures over the last 40 years, transforming itself from a community that once required wood-shake shingles for aesthetics to one that bans them for safety. It also has put in place an ordinance restricting the types of vegetation that can be planted around structures, and fines residents who don’t comply. Marshall said city wildfire safety advocates moved the needle largely through public outreach, through the hard lessons of past fires, and by working directly with residents and lawmakers to get them to understand the consequences of inaction. The city has also worked with NFPA’s Firewise® program for educational resources about building fire-adapted communities.

“I think those of us in the fire service need to be very honest with our residents,” Marshall said. “We had a campaign in Bend where we said very clearly to residents that we cannot protect all these homes during these large-scale [fire] events. We told them that we are going to triage homes based on how well you maintain your properties. If you make it safe for us, we will do everything we can to protect that structure. If we show up and there is a canopy of trees around the house and pine needles on roof, we are going to drive right on by.”

Wildland firefighter battles a raging wildfire on the porch of someones house

A lone firefighter tries to protect a home from wildfire during the 2012 Shockey Fire in San Diego. Some experts believe that the longtime U.S. policy of trying to suppress all wildfire is a failed strategy, urging instead a greater effort to harden structures to resist ignition. Photograph: Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate

Shortly after the campaign, Marshall said he walked by a man pruning vegetation around his home. “I was off duty, wearing civilian clothes, and I asked him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ He told me, ‘Haven’t you heard? The fire department isn’t going to save your house if you don’t clean up,’” Marshall said.

PERHAPS THE closest historical comparison to today’s wildfires in terms of destruction and frequency are the large urban conflagrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which routinely destroyed cities like Boston, Chicago, London, and many others. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871, for instance, resulted in $3.3 billion in losses in 2015 dollars, according to NFPA’s research department. By comparison, total insured losses from the Northern California fires last October now stands at more than $9 billion, according to the California Department of Insurance. The urban fire problem was solved incrementally through research, public education, smart regulation, and our ability to adapt to new ways of doing things. Advocates hope we can follow a similar path with wildfire.

Viewed that way, we seem to be making progress. Wildfire scientists are confident that we already have the knowledge needed to make new homes fire resistant and dramatically reduce the destruction wildfires cause. Advocates like Marshall and Rasker, and organizations ranging from local fire departments to NFPA, are working across the country to educate homeowners and lawmakers on how to build safer communities.

The big unknown, however, and perhaps the most critical component of change, is whether society itself will be able and willing to adapt—namely, whether it can accept wildfire as an inevitable feature of the landscape, and if it can focus on hardening structures to resist wildfire rather than on policies and practices to suppress it.

Cohen has long advocated for this perspective shift and thinks it is ultimately the most important step in eventually reducing wildfire loss. Achieving such a cultural shift, however, will involve more than reason and will, he said. It will involve conquering what he calls a “social psychological” fear of wildfire itself.

“We absolutely abhor free-burning landscape fires—we just can’t deal with that,” Cohen said. “When you look at extreme fire behavior conditions, the scale and size of the flames, the breadth of the flame front, the height of the smoke column, and growth rate of the fire, it is just emotionally destabilizing to people.”

As a result, for decades the country’s dominant wildfire policy was to extinguish wildfires as fast as they sparked, disregarding the fact that wildfire had been a necessary component of a healthy and natural eco-system for millions of years. Cohen and others see that policy as an unmitigated failure. The statistics, which show sizable increases in both property loss and suppression costs over the last decade, make it hard to argue the point. While the suppression-at-all-costs approach has waned somewhat in recent years, the strategy remains ingrained in the psyches of both institutions and citizens, Cohen argues, and rooting it out to pursue other, possibly better strategies can be a daunting task. People expect the government to do everything it can to put the fires out, no matter what.

“We know we can’t control hurricanes or tornados, but we have this false mindset that we can and should control wildfires,” Cohen says. “The perspective is that if firefighters or the government were just doing their jobs and using tax money appropriately, they could’ve stopped a wildfire right after the lightning strike that started it—it doesn’t matter where or how many lightning strikes there were, the feeling is always ‘they should have stopped it.’ There is absolutely no recognition for the natural realities.”

For Cohen and others, wildfire is not a problem to conquer, but a natural element we must accept and adapt to. Viewing the issue through that prism is essential if we hope to get over our obsession with suppression and begin building smartly to withstand an inevitable natural event. For centuries we have viewed wildfire as the problem, when really the problem has been ours.

“Wildfires are inevitable. Wildfires under extreme conditions are inevitable. That does not mean that destruction is inevitable,” Cohen said. “That premise is completely absent from almost all of our policies and activities around wildfire. Instead, we focus on the thing that we have little control over, and it completely distracts us from being able to do something productive.”

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Google Maps