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More California Towns Will Burn. We Should Plan for That

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A stretch of empty land filled with the charred remains of mobile homes and surrounded by trees, some of which are visibly burnt.
Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park retirement community in Paradise. (Noah Berger/AP)

A couple of relatively quiet fire seasons in California could lull residents into thinking the state’s worst years of fire destruction are behind them. But fire experts who gathered this month at a meeting of the Association for Fire Ecology in Monterey are under no such delusion.

California is still in an era of worsening fires in a time of accelerating climate change. The state still has much to learn about enabling beneficial fire and avoiding destruction from out-of-control wildfires. And it still lacks the political will to make the hardest choices about building and rebuilding in fire country.

Despite all the experience California has had over the past decade of explosive fire growth, extreme wildfire is still poorly understood. But there are reasons for hope, including the expanded role Indigenous people play in state, national and international fire policy.

Here are a few key takeaways from a gathering of some of California’s most influential fire experts.

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California needs to redesign its ‘fire antagonistic’ neighborhoods

Standing in front of a crowded auditorium, Zeke Lunder showed Google Street View slides of the town of Paradise before the 2018 Camp Fire:

Streets thick with trees and brush, houses close together.

And then, he showed the after images: Neighborhoods scraped clean down to bare dirt.

Lunder has spent his career in fire, with experience both in fire suppression and lighting beneficial burns. He now runs Deer Creek Resources, a wildfire mapping and consulting company, and has a thesis: more towns across California are primed to burn down than ever. He said the state is not planning for that — but it should.

“We need to anticipate that these towns are going to burn down, and we should redevelop them radically after it happens,” Lunder said.

Five years ago, the Camp Fire, one of California’s most destructive wildfires of all time, killed 85 people, destroyed thousands of structures and decimated the town of Paradise.

As the town has rebuilt, it has repeated some of the same poor planning mistakes, Lunder said. It’s a tragic example of a place that has wasted an opportunity to embrace a safer fire future.

He points, for example, to the housing lots on the edge of town. A road curves along a ridgeline with skinny hilltop homes packed close together — their property running down into a steep, inaccessible canyon.

“There’s barely enough room for a house,” Lunder said. “And then, everyone’s got an acre-and-a-half of land that’s so steep. There’s no way to manage this land.”

Part of the reason the Camp Fire burned so intensely was that vegetation in that canyon was not regularly cleared. So, residents did not have extra time to evacuate, and firefighters did not have a good chance of taking a stand against the fire.

Now, those lots are the same.

And people are constructing houses in the same places. Every home that’s built in its old footprint is an obstacle to a safer redevelopment.

In Lunder’s reimagining, these dangerous hillside lots could have been transformed into a park that would act as a break in the forest that is otherwise a continuous bed of fuel, leaving the neighborhoods beyond much safer.

An aerial view of a tract of land divided into lots.
Property boundaries in the town of Paradise show a row of long lots diving into a steep canyon at one end of town. Vegetation in this canyon could not be easily cleared and provided tinder for the Camp Fire as it raced up the hillside. Instead of redrawing property boundaries in Paradise, local authorities have allowed them to remain largely the same. (Zeke Lunder/Deer Creek Resources)

“We spent $2 billion to scrape all the houses off the ridge and clean up the toxic waste,” he said. “We could have used another hundred million and bought 5,000 lots [to turn into a park]. But we had no plan. The park district is looking to acquire land for fire buffers. But it’s too late.”

Money from the federal and state governments for fuel treatments (thinning, chipping, prescribed burns) has been pouring into communities. But when neighborhoods have been built so the landscape around them can’t be managed, all the money in the world won’t make a difference.

Lunder showed another image that, at first glance, looked like the “before” of Paradise: a rural road choked with greenery vying for space with houses intermixed.

“This isn’t Paradise here, this is Pollock Pines,” he said, referring to the town west of Lake Tahoe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. “It hasn’t burned yet, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t.”

More examples around the state showed the extent of the problem: images from the area around Nevada City, Grass Valley and Marin County, followed by the Oakland hills, were all worryingly crowded with fire fuel and not designed to enable fuel treatment projects.

“It’s not physically possible, given the configuration of many of these places, to even do the work,” Lunder said.

Lunder said places should be redesigned with fire in mind if they are rebuilt. He pointed to the area burned by the Angora Fire near Fallen Leaf Lake, south of Tahoe, in 2007, where neighborhoods were built to align with the canyon. That meant the spine of the road system followed the winds flowing through the canyon. As a result, the Angora Fire hopscotched from house to house easily, leaving a trail of destruction.

“If we’ve been thinking about this before we built a subdivision, maybe we could have oriented the streets perpendicular to the prevailing wind,” he said. “But we don’t think about that, nowhere do we think about that when we build a subdivision.”

So, it’s been rebuilt with the same alignment and the same house-to-house potential for the next fire to take it out. Lunder called this type of community “fire antagonistic.”

“It’s not that [the neighborhoods] were developed without fire in mind, it’s that they’re actively in fire’s face. What are you going to do about that? We see how that’s working out,” he said.

Lunder acknowledged that there are huge hurdles. Counties need a tax base for this work to happen. They need the political will to make decisions like redesigning subdivisions and not allowing some redevelopment that is surely to be unpopular. He is also sensitive to the worry that lower-income residents can be displaced from communities in redevelopment. So, that needs to be considered too, he said.

“But we need to start thinking about this now,” Lunder said.

What causes megafires?

Extreme fires, sometimes called “megafires,” are at fault for a lot of the things we don’t like about fire. Burned neighborhoods. Lost lives. Charred landscapes where everything from the trees to the microbes in the soil are killed.

So it’s worth understanding how these fires — so intense they’re impervious to firefighters’ efforts — happen and what, if anything, can be done to prevent them. Extreme fires were the topic of a suite of talks held at the same conference.

In some respects, we know what drives them:

  • Hotter, drier conditions exacerbated by climate change
  • A longer fire season, also thanks to climate change
  • More chaotic weather patterns can promote the development of pyroconvection (when a fire creates its own weather system) and prompt erratic and sudden fire behaviors, overwhelming firefighters’ efforts
  • The history of fire suppression, tree plantations and invasive species

But there are still big gaps in knowledge and no surefire indicators pointing to why some fires merely become big while others go on to become extreme. Some surprising research indicates that extreme fires have flourished under milder weather conditions compared to big fires that behaved more normally.

How dry the previous two weeks had been, in these cases, seemed to play a role in influencing fire behavior.

Andrea Duane, a wildfire science researcher at UC Davis, concluded her talk with a sobering reminder that climate projections point toward worse fires in the future, so getting a better handle on extreme fires could not be more timely.

Empowering more indigenous fire

Attendees of the conference said that if there is cause for future hope, it is the voices of native and Indigenous people who are gaining broader influence over California’s fire policy for their intimate knowledge of how to use fire to care for landscapes and people.

A session about nurturing indigenous fire stewardship was at capacity, with people sitting on the floor and overflowing into the hall. A few years ago, at these kinds of fire conferences, several speakers mentioned that wouldn’t have been the case.

Much work remains to be done, however. Several tribal members who also have training in Western science spoke of past damage done by fire agencies who outlawed their practices and about the damage still done by Western scientists who rewrite the past by ignoring their ancestors’ knowledge and stewardship of their lands.

Don Hankins, a professor at California State University, Chico, and Plains Miwok from the Central Valley of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, presented about The Stewardship Project — an effort to empower indigenous management.

Some of the specific objectives of the project include:

  • Reducing or eliminating Bureau of Indian Affairs involvement in fire programs on tribal trust land
  • Enabling meaningful co-management of lands
  • And creating a formal process to enable more land to return to native hands

Hankins said many tribes have “first fire” stories. These tell of devastating fires that char the landscape. And then, through these stories, the people learn to steward the land through fire, trading fires of chance for fires of choice.

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