As the riskiest areas for wildfire expand, Californians keep pouring into them. By midcentury, builders may add as many as 1.2 million new homes in geographic areas most at risk.
It’s a contradiction, and the state’s showing no signs of resolving it. Almost as incendiary as wildfire itself is the idea that we shouldn’t build — or in many cases rebuild — because of it.
Even as California demands hardened homes through tougher building codes, struggles with enforcing existing requirements for defensible space, begins to consider the role of evacuation routes in community safety, and reconsiders its relationship with the forests and grasslands where people spark fires, the hardest question remains unspoken.
Should California communities retreat from the growing risk of fire?
“Retreat seems to grate on the American psyche; we don’t like to go backwards,” said Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at UC Davis who studies repeat flooding, another natural hazard whose frequency is affected by human behavior and climate change.
While California has mapped fire risk and boosted scrutiny of local fire response in general plans, the road maps for development that officials use, nothing prevents local communities from rebuilding in places that have burned over and over, like Paradise in Butte County, and Fountaingrove in the city of Santa Rosa.
Some experts say the state’s land use and planning practices demand reconsideration.
“I think it's mature and it's a mark of intelligence that we can actually say ... let's do this better, let's do it radically different, different enough that this isn't actually that big a problem anymore,” said Max Moritz, a cooperative extension fire specialist at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School.
Our Vulnerabilities Are Our Choices
Ninety percent of buildings in Paradise burned down. Established in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the 1800s, the town grew in the 20th century without much in the way of zoning or planning for fire risk.
That’s normal for California. No codified guidance tells communities where and how to build to reduce the threat from natural disasters.
The state’s recently updated building codes do minimize hazards in the “building envelope,” the outer elements in the structure itself. To aid in fighting fires, the state also requires water supplies and certain features related to road access.
But some planners now say these mitigation efforts aren’t enough to guarantee the safety of new development. Pete Parkinson, who lost a home in Santa Rosa and has led planning departments in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties before retiring, sounded an alarm last fall.
“I cannot recall any development project that was denied, or where the density was substantially reduced, because of known wildfire hazards,” he wrote in a regional newsletter for the American Planning Association. “The fire hazards in some areas of our state are simply too great to allow additional residential development.”
Max Moritz has talked to local planners and fire officials who sign off on developments and recognize weaknesses in the current system.
“They don't have the authority to do what they know is right, and so they have to let some of these developments proceed without being able to say anything about how it could be done better,” he said. “From the people I've talked to, I know that that's hard to sleep with really, when you play that out.”
Since January, the state has made counties consult with fire officials on planning, but it’s not clear how much that will affect decisions. Under a law passed last year, counties with very high risk fire severity zones and state responsibility areas must submit the safety elements of their general plans to the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection for review. If counties don’t incorporate the fire marshall’s recommendations, they must meet with officials from the board, but the law provides no penalties or substantive requirements.
California produces several maps that include information potentially useful to planning, but none includes guidance about how planners might use them, says Moritz. Cal Fire has maps on fire hazard severity zones and has analyzed fire probability; the California Public Utilities Commission has created fire threat maps.
Moritz says these maps focus on just parts of what makes up fire risk. That risk, he says, is a calculation based both on hazards — the steepness of canyons and the dryness of vegetation — and on vulnerabilities — the systems that communities build to cope with the hazards.
So whether San Diego County is waiving requirements for multiple roads in and out of a new development next to the steep canyons of Harmony Grove, or Los Angeles County is approving thousands of new homes in the fire-prone grasslands of Centennial at Tejon Ranch, our vulnerabilities — our choices, really — aren’t on any map.
One Potential Solution to Deadly Fires in the Wilderness: Don't Build There
Politicians would have to act if counties are to set limits on where developers build, or the state is to set limits on what counties could permit. But elected officials are rarely caught talking about such limits in the wild. Instead, we rely on retired fire officials to speak truth.
“Are there areas that shouldn’t be built? Absolutely,” said Kurt Henke, who retired as chief from the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District after a 35-year career. “If the last two or three years doesn’t change it, what more do they need to see?”
Fire officials stress that public safety isn’t just the work of first responders. In planning, though, safety concerns compete with the need for both housing and the local property taxes that fund essential services.
Local control over planning and development is sacrosanct in California. But one fire-safety argument is that the state could take some of that authority over land use back.
On his way into retirement last December, Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott told AP that the state must consider prohibiting building in wildfire-prone areas.
Hours into his new job in January, Gov. Gavin Newsom was in Colfax, standing with Placer County supervisors and Auburn mayor Cheryl Maki, as he was asked about Pimlott’s remarks.
Newsom turned to face the local officials as he said he recognized the stresses they face in permitting development in the wildland-urban interface.
“The last thing you want is, you know, some guy in Sacramento there telling you what to do in Auburn,” Newsom said. “That said, if, you know, there's a point where common sense ... is not in evidence, maybe we can lean in a little, and encourage and incentivize better behavior.”
In the U.S., the Constitution prevents government taking of private property without compensation. But natural hazards change the value of compensation all of the time, and limits on zoning or development can occur. While it’s very rare that a public official will propose an outright ban on rebuilding after a fire, it does happen.
In 2017, a fire that sparked in a Los Angeles County homeless camp wrapped the hills around the 405 freeway in flames. After that blaze, called the Skirball Fire, and the neighboring Rye and Creek Fires, the longtime head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Joe Edmiston, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about scorched properties.
“I think two strikes is enough and they ought to be bought out,” he said. It wasn’t the first time he had floated the idea — 24 years earlier, after another fire, he called for a “three strikes” rule, under which homeowners could obtain recovery funds for no more than three disasters.
Edmiston is now part of a task force evaluating local response to the 2017 Woolsey Fire, which killed three people and destroyed 1,500 buildings. A spokeswoman for the conservancy said Edmiston wouldn’t comment further on planning and rebuilding until that work is complete.
Montecito: Redefining Resilience
In January of last year, heavy rain let loose a punch: Mud and water poured down from the Santa Ynez mountains into Montecito, a town of about 9,000 people in Santa Barbara County. Former Santa Barbara City fire chief Pat McElroy says the debris flow slapped the bark off sycamore trees and bowled sandstone rocks the size of SUVs into houses. Twenty-three people died as the Thomas fire still burned in backcountry.
That fire was the county’s fifth in a decade. McElroy counts a cumulative toll from those years, from the 2007 Zaca Fire, the Tea and Gap Fires in 2008, the 2009 Jesusita Fire, and the Thomas in 2017. "It was a really shattering experience," he said.
Now Montecito residents want to redefine resilience, by boosting physical protections against the cycle of fire, mud, repeat. McElroy helped found the Partnership for Resilient Communities, and people in the wealthy town have privately raised nearly $5 million to pay for six steel hoop retention nets that could slow the destructive crush of mud and debris that fire can cause.
In early May, a helicopter hovered over San Ysidro Creek dangling a long mesh net of rings. Across the creek canyon, crews stood on wires stretched like tightropes, 70 feet across. The workers linked the mesh to the wires where they stood, then pulled the rings taut, like chainmail. These nets won’t stop debris rolling down the creek, but they will slow it down.
“Hoping it doesn’t happen again isn’t a strategy,” McElroy said, beaming as the operation unfolded.
Others in Montecito wonder whether county planning practices need an even more radical shift.
Ten years ago, Santa Barbara County’s Tea Fire stole Claire Gottsdanker’s home, burning it to the ground as she watched.
Gottsdanker, a landscape designer, says she was one of the first people in Montecito to pull a permit to rebuild.
She rebuilt quickly. But the trauma clung to her. Three years after the Tea Fire, she had a stroke.
All of that was on her mind a decade later, immediately after the Thomas Fire.
“I think it’s a terrible time to make a decision,” Gottsdanker said.
After seeing the impacts of the Thomas Fire, she says, she wouldn’t want to rebuild again.
Santa Barbara County’s flood control district made it clear that everyone who wanted to could rebuild. As a member of the Montecito Board of Architectural Review, Gottsdanker was one of the first to review plans for one property along Montecito Creek, another canyon creek pounded by mudflows. In a public hearing, she asked the homeowner why she would want to do that.
“Here she was getting her house reviewed and she can’t even get to it,” said Gottsdanker. “The county issued these ... permits really fast. And I’m going, slow down, having been there 10 years ago, you need to slow down.”
The architectural review board and the planning board approved the project. No construction has begun; the once-verdant site remains brown and scrubby, with a camper tucked under a massive tree.
A Window of Opportunity, But Short-Lived
When Ryan Miller was growing up in the heart of Paradise, he thought of fire as something that happened to other people, on the edge of town. His family hadn’t moved to the Butte County town seeking a wildland experience. Rather, they were like a lot of his neighbors, wanting to be close to jobs in Chico: people who were “priced out,” he said, of the urban center.
Now, Miller’s a UC Davis Ph.D. student whose work focuses in part on natural hazards and how they impact housing disparity. His childhood home was one of thousands burned to the ground during the Camp Fire, and his mother has moved 30 miles away; she isn’t sure yet whether she will return.
Miller worries that people in his community will feel pressured socially and economically into rebuilding.
“There’s this growing sense that, you know, your duty is to go back and be resilient and go back to Paradise,” he said. “So I think we need to be more comfortable with the word ‘retreat.’”
Focusing on rebuilding is a narrow idea about community resilience after a wildfire. UC Davis geology professor Nicholas Pinter suggests a broader approach, with every question put on the table.
Pinter studies repeat flooding and how communities respond to it, including by “managed retreat” — a term used often in the context of flood and sea level rise to describe backing away from a natural hazard. But he says maybe retreat isn’t the right word to encourage people to think differently about their risk, and to rely less on engineered mitigations that can often fail. Instead, California could think about heading toward a better understanding of resilience.
“What we’re really talking about is fixing these old planning errors, moving people to a more appropriate location, and balancing human occupation of the landscape with the hazards that exist out there,” he said.
Flood risk and fire risk are very different, but Pinter says in both contexts the time after the disaster is a crucial one.
“There really is this short-lived window of opportunity following a major natural disaster to have some sort of transformative change, to make things different afterwards,” he said.
After California’s fires last year, that window is open. But for how long is anybody’s guess.
Get the best of KQED's science coverage in your inbox weekly.