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Managing Wildfire Risk and New Development

Ina Coolbrith Park, San Francisco

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

California has experienced unprecedented wildfire damage in the last several years as climate change has increased temperatures and dried out land and vegetation. The seven largest wildfires in recorded California history have all taken place in the last four years. As a state, we need to develop tools to help us combat wildfire risk in order to save lives, homes and communities. At the same time, the state is experiencing a massive housing shortage, which is driving up the cost of housing and forcing people to move farther away from job centers in search of more affordable housing.

The connection between housing policy and climate change is clear. If urban areas fail to produce housing in walkable neighborhoods near transit and jobs, more and more people will drive, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and fueling hotter temperatures. In California, climate change has already led to historic heat waves and drought that parch vegetation, exacerbating the wildfires that burn down homes and pollute our air.

The state has a responsibility to keep communities safe from wildfires and other hazards. It also has a responsibility to ensure there is enough housing to meet the needs of all Californians. How should state leaders balance these two goals?

SPUR, Greenbelt Alliance and California YIMBY have developed a series of principles to help guide the management of wildfire risk and growth. We feel that it is critical to the future of the state to tackle these goals together and in doing so, create a stronger California for everyone.

1. Support higher density growth in in-fill locations that aren’t impacted by wildfire risk.

One of the single most important things Californians can do to mitigate wildfire risk and support the creation of new homes is to build as much housing as possible in areas that are less impacted by wildfire risk and which are not located in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the transition zone between uninhabited land and human development. Supporting growth in safe in-fill locations includes zoning for more housing in low-risk areas, making the permitting process faster and aligning public resources to support the construction of affordable housing in these places.


2. Differentiate between different levels of wildfire risk and develop regional planning tools for determining fire risk to inform growth plans.

Planning for wildfire risk requires differentiating between types of risk. There are some parts of the state that are highly likely to burn again and again.

There are also different types of fires that occur in different parts of the state based on variations in vegetation, topography, and climate, housing density, and road networks – for example Southern California is more likely to experience fast moving fires spread by high winds that consume grasslands, whereas forested areas in Northern California and the Sierra Nevada are likely to see fuel-driven fires, i.e. fires that grow as they consume dry or overgrown vegetation. These different conditions require different planning tools to manage and mitigate.

Because fire risk is based on climate, vegetation and topography, councils of governments and metropolitan planning organizations should be tasked with taking fire risk into account as part of the development of sustainable community strategies (SCS). As part of an SCS, regional planning agencies can recommend which parts of the region are safest from a fire hazard perspective, which parts are protectable with mitigation, and which parts should remain undeveloped.

To help inform regional plans, state fire maps need to be updated and refined on an ongoing basis so that they can be used to support appropriate mitigation. CAL FIRE maps that designate state responsibility areas, very high, high and moderate fire hazard severity zones are several years old and don’t reflect areas that have already been developed and should be removed from the maps. The maps also may not account for the growing risk of a longer, drier fire season associated with climate change.


3. Don’t build new housing or job centers in areas of the highest wildfire risk as defined by regional planning processes such as the Sustainable Communities Strategy.

Concentrating growth in places with low or even moderate hazard risk is necessary to address the state’s housing crisis. In these instances, it is beneficial to distinguish between areas that are already developed, where urbanization could be further encouraged, and undeveloped areas that may need conservation.

However there are some places where fire risk is so significant or where multiple hazards (earthquake, landslide, etc.) overlap that we simply should not be building new housing or job centers there. This multi-hazard approach is important when thinking about where to encourage or discourage growth. When high-risk areas are entirely undeveloped, they should be protected by conservation efforts including the purchase of the land or conservation easements to ensure that they are never built on.

As mentioned above, mapping and planning tools need to be further refined and used at the regional scale so that these no-growth areas are precisely defined and so that wildfire risk is not used as an excuse to prevent new housing construction from occurring in appropriate locations for growth.


4. Develop guidance to inform how existing towns and cities with higher fire risk should approach growth and mitigation

There are many places throughout the state – cities and towns in more rural areas, but also more urban areas that are adjacent to wilderness – where fire risk is high, but where growth has already occurred and additional growth may be planned for and needed to address the housing shortage. In these places, it is important to use community planning tools to help manage and mitigate risk. For example, should city councils discourage growth on the periphery of town and encourage it in the center? Should cities build a fire break between the developed part of town and the wilderness area? In general, building more densely can help increase the defensibility of a place. The state should help lift up best practices and provide funding and technical assistance to support communities in planning effectively to address fire risk.

The state has developed significant new fire-tested risk reduction strategies, including project design requirements in the Fire Safe Regulations, fire resistant building codes, indoor fire sprinklers that alleviate the possibility that a fire in a new home will cause a wildfire, wildfire requirements in the safety elements of local general plans, wildfire risk considerations in California Environmental Quality Act, defensible space requirements (including locating streets, irrigated landscaping, fire breaks and increased defensible space around the periphery of the project), undergrounding of power lines, and solar roofs that provide power when the grid is not available and which reduce dependency on power lines. Implementing these existing measures for new development will help reduce fire risk.


5. Harden existing structures and create defensible space requirements

There are 14 million existing homes in California, most of which were not constructed with fire resistant building codes of any kind or with defensible space requirements. As a result, structures that are lost during wildfires almost always fall into this category. Even in cases where some form of requirement was in effect, local jurisdictions did not enforce them. Even if a structure had defensible space at the time of construction, vegetation allowed to grow in a manner that violates defensible space requirements puts the building at risk. Mitigation standards should be regionally defined to manage the type of fire that threatens the location. The state should also develop financing tools to ensure that homes for low- and moderate-income households in these locations are retrofitted to be fire safe.


6. Align utility planning and insurance regulation policies with wildfire risk and growth plans.

As the state continues to grow, it is important to take utility planning into account. The state should be working with private operators and planning with public operators to ensure the safety of existing systems by planning for on-going maintenance and upgrades, as well as thinking through the interdependence of these systems and how to keep them running during a major event. Insurance for private property should likewise be regulated to ensure that fire insurance is affordable and available for homes in areas where growth is encouraged and priced to reflect risk in areas where growth should not be supported.

SPUR, Greenbelt Alliance and California YIMBY believe that by aligning state policies with these principles, we can create a safer, more resilient and more affordable California for everyone.

About the Authors:

Amanda Brown-Stevens, Greenbelt Alliance

Brian Hanlon, California YIMBY

Sarah Karlinsky, SPUR