When It Comes to Wildfire Solutions, Relocating Communities Is a Tough Sell

5 min
A North Bay house nestled among trees.  (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

They call it "managed retreat."

More than a buzzphrase, the term has become something of a movement among officials looking for ways to cope with rising sea levels and increased river flooding. In short, it means getting out of harm's way, literally moving people and possibly whole communities to higher ground.

It sounds radical, but it's now a serious topic among planners and scientists who are scheduling whole conferences around the benefits as well as the challenges of managed retreat.

But what about in fire country, where California has seen so much devastation in recent years? I recently asked Lisa Dale, a social scientist at Columbia University's Sustainable Development Program, if we should also be discussing managed retreat as a defense against the increasingly catastrophic wildfires we've seen in California. Here are excerpts from that interview, edited for length and clarity.

Nearly all the emphasis whenever anyone talks about managed retreat is on coastal and river flooding. Even out west, we don't talk about it much in terms of fire. Should we?

Lisa Dale: I'm hard-pressed to say we should. I worked in the wildfire community for decades. I've never heard it discussed. To look back and say, "Really those people should be moving," I don't think it's realistic.

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Remember, half the residents of the American West live in the wildland-urban interface. It's hard to imagine asking 50% of western residents to move to the city. We're asking for complete and total urbanization of the West if we want to retreat from wildfire zones. And that's not what the West is about, and that's not why people live there. So I don't think it's realistic.

Nearly all of the coastal U.S. is developed, whereas a relatively small proportion of the wildland-urban interface is developed. So it does seem like there's at least an opportunity there.

Yes. I think the opportunity is on the front end. So, while I'm reluctant to argue that we should be pushing people to move who already live in the risk area, I think there's a lot we can do to create disincentives for new people to move there.

An estimated 85% or so of the wildland-urban interface area is not yet developed. We have a huge opportunity there to minimize our future risk by planning carefully and zoning and creating movement patterns for people to relocate, so that we're not setting ourselves up for an inevitable situation where we do have to start considering relocating communities.

In California, they tried to attach a kind of a risk premium to people's insurance policies, saying essentially, "Okay, if you're going to live in these designated zones, you're going to pay for some of the public costs of wildfires when they happen." It didn't fly.

We tried a number of similar measures in Colorado when I lived there, and those didn't fly, either. And part of the problem comes down to the shortcomings of risk mapping. Because that is a binary choice. Some people will have to pay that fee and some people won't have to pay that fee, and who gets put in the pay bucket becomes a really contentious question.

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So what is the answer? I see you kind of rolling your eyes.

I really think local governments are the key. States can do a lot to force local governments to act, but states themselves can only take limited steps. Since the local governments are also the ones often saddled with the costs of wildfire, that's an easy match. This is a layer of government that is facing the costs now and is therefore incentivized to create solutions. They run up against problems like, "If we close the wildland-urban interface from building, we've just reduced our tax base. We've just reduced the availability of private property in our town." And no local government wants to do that. So it's not easy.

Insurance companies are also key to this story, and we're starting to see some real action on that in the West. We're starting to see home insurance companies require their policy holders in risk areas to complete defensible space work around their homes. We're starting to see policies with disclosure requirements across the West, so that if you are moving there and don't know you're moving into a risk zone, there's mandatory disclosure. Those will help. I think the combination of home insurance action and local government steps are likely the location of solutions.

[Note: Insurance companies have have also been canceling an increasing number of homeowner policies in California's wildfire-prone areas, with more expensive, less comprehensive policies as the alternative.]

After the devastating wine country fires a couple of years ago, that swept through dense urban areas in Santa Rosa, we saw residents go right back in and build in the same place. And the local politicians were very reluctant to say they couldn't.

Well, I think that's tricky. You've seen this for a long time across the West, which is part of why I'm a little distrustful of these risk maps. I think they lead to a false sense of safety for people whose homes are marked safe.

And, in fact, we know the fires are behaving in unprecedented ways so we can't adequately predict the future. And we're also seeing some really unexpected bottlenecks for progress. For example, one thing we kept coming up against in Colorado was homeowner associations that required certain building materials be used on their properties. Fire-resistant materials, for example, were forbidden in some of these homeowner associations.

For aesthetic reasons?

Exactly. So, they're trying to create a style for all the homes in a community. And when those decisions were made decades ago, nobody was thinking about fire risk. We can do a lot with building materials, with requiring flame-resistant roof tiles for example, removing barriers to the adoption of those types of materials.

Local governments can do a lot to think about ways to get in and out of high-risk neighborhoods for emergency vehicles so that fires don't become as catastrophic as we've seen and can be more easily tackled.

That was a huge factor in the Camp Fire, which leveled the entire city of Paradise in Butte County in 2018.

It's a huge factor in many communities. Part of living up in the woods is that you live on these long, windy roads, and there's only one road to get to you. So it's also a transportation and road-network issue.

We have a lot of opportunities, I think, especially in the West since so much of it is not yet developed, to redefine the way we develop those areas, redefine the way we build in those areas, all within the framework of reducing risk from wildfire.

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