Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Op-Ed: Build to Survive: Homes in California’s burn zones must adopt fire-safe code

SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL

After the apocalyptic Camp Fire reduced most of Paradise to ashes last November, a clear pattern emerged.

Fifty-one percent of the 350 houses built after 2008 escaped damage, according to an analysis by McClatchy. Yet only 18 percent of the 12,100 houses built before 2008 did.

What made the difference? Building codes.

The homes with the highest survival rate appear to have benefited from “a landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions – requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese.

When it comes to defending California’s homes against the threat of wildfires, regulation is protection. The fire-safe building code, known as the 7A code, worked as intended. Homes constructed in compliance with the 2008 standards were built to survive.

As many as 3 million homes stand in what the state calls “very high fire hazard severity zones,” according to Cal Fire. These areas, where the climate and the presence of combustible foliage can lead to tinderbox conditions, are destined to burn. The data on which homes survived the Camp Fire should be a call to action for every city in the danger zones.

Unfortunately, short-term thinking can triumph over common sense. Cities facing severe fire risks can avoid compliance with the fire-resistant building codes, or choose to avoid their obvious advantages, despite the fact that “a new home built to wild-fire-resistant codes can be constructed for roughly the same cost as a typical home,” according to a report by Headwaters Economics.

Take Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, where the Tubbs Fire killed five people and destroyed 1,321 homes in 2017. The neighborhood wasn’t considered a fire hazard zone, unlike some other areas of Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire proved otherwise, but Coffey Park still isn’t designated as a “very high fire hazard zone” by Cal Fire.

“City officials are OK with that,” according to The Bee. “Although developers rebuilding Coffey Park are being urged to consider fire-resistant materials, city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said the city doesn’t see any reason to impose the 7A code in the neighborhood.”

Mertens suggested high winds on the night of the fire meant officials have no reason to require fire-safe construction as Coffey Park is rebuilt. One fire scientist called Santa Rosa’s stance “an error in judgment.”

Folsom also appears to have its head in the sand with regards to fire risk. It’s allowing the Folsom Ranch development to be built without adherence to the fire-safe code. The parcel of land south of Highway 50 was formerly managed by Cal Fire and designated as a moderate fire risk zone, which would trigger the fire-safe building requirements. Once Folsom annexed the land for the new development, the city decided to opt out of the 7A code because the area was never considered a “very high” fire hazard zone.

The city will require “vegetation management” plans and fire-resistant fencing. But they may eventually put 25,000 people into non-fire-safe housing in an area Cal Fire knows has a higher risk of burning.

Getting officials and developers to follow the fire-safe code in increased risk zones is hard. But the even bigger problem is how to retrofit the millions of homes built before the new standards existed.

“What are we going to do about the existing housing stock that’s been built in these places?” asked Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara interviewed by The Bee. “For the existing housing stock that’s out there, that isn’t built to these codes, we have a massive retrofitting issue on our hands.”

“You’ve got to get in and retrofit,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing McClatchy’s reporting during a press conference at the state’s Office of Emergency Services operations center.

Assembly Bill 38 is a good place to start. The bill by Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa would provide $1 billion in loan funds to help homeowners retrofit their properties. It’s not enough money to retrofit every home, but it’s a start and that can raise public awareness of the dire need for fire-safe retrofits in hazard zones.

The state fire marshal is currently developing a list of low-cost fire retrofits that the state plans to promote once it’s finalized in 2020.

In addition, Cal Fire is revising its fire zone maps, and the “very high fire hazard” zones will surely spread over a larger portion of the state. This time around, local officials won’t be able to opt out of the requirements, as they can under current law.

A series of recent “atmospheric river” storms made fire season seem like a bad memory. But it’s all too easy for most Californians to forget that these rains feed the growth of vegetation that turns into kindling.

Thanks to McClatchy’s analysis, we now know fire-safe building codes can mean the difference between survival and destruction. When the next big incinerating fire barrels down on a city full of ready-to-burn homes in the hazard zone, we can’t claim we didn’t know better.

Source: https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article229425004.html

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , , ,

Why your house may burn while your neighbor’s survives the next wildfire

Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

The sky was turning orange and the embers were flying from the Camp Fire when Oney and Donna Carrell and Donna’s father sped away from their Paradise home.

“I thought, ‘Oh, well, the house is done,’ ” Oney Carrell said.

A few days later, they learned otherwise. The Carrells’ home survived the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history with a couple of warped window frames, a partially charred down spout and a stubborn smoky smell inside.

Most of their neighborhood was destroyed. A guest house in their backyard, where Donna’s father lived, was reduced to ashes, along with a couple of sheds. Yet their beautifully restored 1940 Studebaker sat untouched in the garage.

The arc of destruction the Camp Fire carved through Paradise was seemingly random: Why were some houses saved and others incinerated? As millions of Californians brace for another wildfire season, a McClatchy analysis of fire and property records shows the answer might be found in something as simple as the roofs over their heads — and the year their house was built.

A landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions — requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards — appears to have protected the Carrells’ home and dozens of others like it from the Camp Fire. That year marks a pivotal moment in the state’s deadly and expensive history of destructive natural disasters.

All told, about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were undamaged, according to McClatchy’s analysis of Cal Fire data and Butte County property records. By contrast, only 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built prior to 2008 escaped damage. Those figures don’t include mobile homes, which burned in nearly equal measure regardless of age.

“These are great standards; they work,” said senior engineer Robert Raymer of the California Building Industry Association, who consulted with state officials on the building code.

Yet despite this lesson, California may end up falling short in its effort to protect homes from the next wildfire.

Read more at https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article227665284.html

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Habitats, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Wildland development escalates California fire costs

Bay City News, NPR

The sky above Ron Beeny turned black.

The 71-year-old was stuck in traffic as he evacuated from his home in Paradise on the morning of Nov. 8.

Trees and brush lined both sides of the two-lane road. In the darkness, Beeny had no idea where the fire was. A former firefighter, he knew that getting trapped between walls of fuel could be deadly.

“[When] daytime turns to night, the fire is burning extremely intense,” he said.

For more than an hour Beeny inched forward in his red Toyota pickup, heading west toward Chico. His home of 41 years was incinerated by the Camp Fire. The blaze that destroyed Beeny’s home is just the latest mega-fire in California — and the cost of fighting such fires has risen dramatically.

California dwarfs other states in fire-suppression costs, an analysis by a Stanford journalism class has found. The Stanford class analyzed daily reports from the most expensive fires in every state from 2014 to 2017, and found that dense development at the border of wildlands — in communities like Paradise, Cobb, and Santa Rosa — helps explain California fires’ exceptional damage and expense to put out.

A 2015 federal audit showed that fire suppression costs vastly more in these transition zones between wild and developed areas — Wildland Urban Interface areas, or WUIs, for short.

The Stanford analysis of fire costs found that, among the states that spend the most on suppression, California fires overlapped far more with the WUI: More than 30 percent of the 2015 Butte Fire, for example, burned on WUI lands, destroying almost 1,000 buildings. Much of the state’s WUI is made up of chaparral — dry shrubland — that burns fast and hot.

Read more at https://www.kqed.org/news/11713393/wildland-development-escalates-california-fire-costs

Posted on Categories Land UseTags , ,

Proposed Marriott hotel in burn zone denied approval by Santa Rosa Planning Commission

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa planning commissioners have blocked a large hotel project in Fountaingrove, citing the potential peril posed by future wildfire among their chief concerns, and foreshadowing a looming fight over the extent of new commercial development allowed in one of Sonoma County’s biggest burn zones.

The first-of-its-kind decision came in a 3-3 vote Thursday by the city’s Planning Commission, which withheld approval of a use permit for the 114-room, three-story Residence Inn Hotel by Marriott. It is envisioned for a 4.6-acre site just north of the former Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel and the Fountaingrove Inn, both of which were destroyed in the Tubbs fire in October 2017.

The outcome reflects the city’s ongoing struggle to balance public safety with its stated commitment to facilitate redevelopment of burn zones. Officials vowed even in the immediate aftermath of the fire not to stand in the way of homeowners looking to rebuild in Fountaingrove, which lost nearly 1,600 homes in the Tubbs fire.

But embrace of new development, including commercial projects, has been a much trickier issue in the hillside area, which has burned twice in the past 54 years. In addition to the two hotels, the Tubbs fire destroyed the historic Round Barn, a quarter-mile south of the hotel, singed Fountaingrove office buildings and threatened nearby Kaiser and Sutter hospitals before jumping Highway 101 to the west.

The deadly and destructive Camp fire that swept through Butte County last month gave planning commissioners additional pause Thursday.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9028541-181/proposed-marriott-hotel-in-burn

Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , , , ,

Government climate report warns of worsening US disasters

Seth Borenstein, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Also see “U.S. Climate Report Warns of Damaged Environment and Shrinking Economy”, NEW YORK TIMES

As California’s catastrophic wildfires recede and people rebuild after two hurricanes, a massive new federal report warns that these types of extreme weather disasters are worsening in the United States. The White House report quietly issued Friday also frequently contradicts President Donald Trump.

The National Climate Assessment was written long before the deadly fires in California this month and before Hurricanes Florence and Michael raked the East Coast and Florida. It says warming-charged extremes “have already become more frequent, intense, widespread or of long duration.” The report notes the last few years have smashed U.S. records for damaging weather, costing nearly $400 billion since 2015.

The recent Northern California wildfires can be attributed to climate change, but there was less of a connection to those in Southern California, said co-author William Hohenstein of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A warm, dry climate has increased the areas burned over the last 20 years,” he said at a press conference Friday.

The report is mandated by law every few years and is based on more than 1,000 previous research studies. It details how global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas is hurting each region of the United States and how it impacts different sectors of the economy, including energy and agriculture.

“Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the report says.

That includes worsening air pollution causing heart and lung problems, more diseases from insects, the potential for a jump in deaths during heat waves, and nastier allergies.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8990379-181/government-climate-report-warns-of

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags ,

FIrestruck homes becoming uninsurable

Mary Williams Walsh, THE NEW YORK TIMES

California’s wildfires keep growing bigger, more frequent and more destructive. Of the 20 worst wildfires in state history, four were just last year, giving rise to a record $12.6 billion of insurance claims.

It hasn’t gotten any better this year. The Mendocino Complex Fire in August was the biggest in state history, and the Camp Fire that wiped out the town of Paradise is the deadliest. It had destroyed nearly 12,000 homes as of Monday morning.

This has put pressure on property insurers, some of which have been declining to renew homeowners’ policies in fire-prone areas. When the houses that burned this year are rebuilt, their owners may find that no one is writing insurance there — at least not at affordable prices.

“We’re not in a crisis yet, but all of the trends are in a bad direction,” said Dave Jones, who is completing his eighth and final year as California’s insurance commissioner. “We’re slowly marching toward a world that’s uninsurable.”

Here’s what you need to know about California’s slow-motion insurance crisis.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/20/business/california-fires-insurance.html

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Wildfires: Managing the risk

Dan Farber, LEGAL PLANET

How can we limit the spread of wildfires and save people and property?

Wildfires are already a serious problem, and climate change will only make the problem worse, as I’ve discussed in my two prior posts. Reducing carbon emissions can help keep the problem from growing, but we need to deal with the risks we’re already facing. That is going to require a portfolio of risk management strategies. We need to ramp up all of them.
Land Use Controls.

There are increasing numbers of people moving into the wild-land urban interface (WUI).The USDA’s report on the WUI says that 3.8 million people live in that zone in California alone. Nationally, a million homes were added to the WUI just in the decade from 1990-2000. That simply isn’t sustainable.

Human activities increase the risk of fire from sparks or burns, and homes are typically highly flammable and help fires spread more quickly. Better land use controls could limit development in high risk areas. Easier said than done, however, given development pressures. According to a 2013 study, ” land use planning for wildfire has yet to gain traction in practice, particularly in the United States. However, fire history has been used to help define land zoning for fire planning in Italy, and bushfire hazard maps are integrated into planning policy in Victoria, Australia.” By 2016, however, Headwaters Economics was reporting on five Western US cities that were taking advantage of at least some land use tools to reduce fire risks, though none seem to have imposed outright bans on development in high-risk areas.

Buyouts may be a fallback in extreme situations. Building codes can also help — for instance, by requiring fire-resistant roofs on new houses. Liability rules for fires have to be carefully considered. Making utilities liable for fires can cause them to take greater precautions, but the prospect of compensation could also encourage people to live in unsafe areas. On the other hand, fire insurance costs can send an important price signal about the risks of WUI property ownership, as some Californians are already beginning to experience.
Land Management.

Read more at http://legal-planet.org/2018/10/08/wildfires-managing-the-risks/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Land UseTags , , , ,

We came, we planned, we were wrong

Pete Parkinson, NORTHERN NEWS (California Chapter of the American Planning Association)

You are all too familiar with the headline by now: California Is Burning.

Last fall, more than 6,000 homes were destroyed in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties (including my own home near Santa Rosa). Homes went up in flames in rural, sub-urban, and urban settings, including 3,000 homes lost within the city limits of Santa Rosa.

CalFire had designated some of those areas as very-high wildfire hazard; others (including my neighborhood) were considered “only” moderate wildfire hazard. Still other areas — like the suburban Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa where over 1,300 homes were lost — were not considered wildfire hazards at all.

This year has brought no relief. As I write (in mid-August), we’ve seen new wildfires sweep into the city of Redding and threaten Yosemite National Park. The Mendocino Complex, the largest wildfire in California history (eclipsing a record set only a few months ago in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties) continues to burn 45 miles north of Santa Rosa.

Wildfire hazards have been a consistent theme in my career as a planner and planning director in three northern California counties (Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz). I have
overseen the preparation of General Plan Safety Elements, Local Hazard Mitigation Plans, and regulatory codes that addressed the full range of hazard management strategies, including road access, water supply, defensible space, and structural design. The underlying theme of these efforts was a belief that wildfire risks can be managed to an acceptable level of public safety, if not eliminated altogether. In fact,
I cannot recall any development project that was denied, or where the density was substantially reduced, because of known wildfire hazards.

The firestorm that swept into our Santa Rosa community last October has fundamentally changed my thinking about development in California’s fire-prone landscapes. Now, 10 months post-catastrophe, let me offer a few lessons learned from one planner’s perspective.

Read more at https://norcalapa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Oct18.pdf

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Sustainable LivingTags , , , ,

‘It’s getting worse:’ Climate change stokes fiery future for California

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Striding through the brown, sun-dried grass on a slope at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Caitlin Cornwall stopped to touch a slender stalk of blue wild rye, crowned by a tasseled seed pod.

The 3,900-acre park in the Mayacamas Mountains near Kenwood was largely overrun by the Nuns fire in October, and the signs of recovery are abundant. Most of the live oak, bay and madrone trees survived; smaller Douglas firs perished and are being dismantled by beetles and woodpeckers.

The grasslands are generally healthier than they were before last fall’s blaze and could readily burn again, said Cornwall, a biologist with Sonoma Ecology Center, which has managed the park since 2012.

“This is all a fire-created natural community,” she said. The park burned in 1964, also by a fire named Nuns.

Indeed, fire shaped the drought-prone landscape for thousands of years, as Native Americans used it to maintain meadows and forests that provided deer, elk and acorns for food as well as grasses for basketry.

But now, climate change has thrown the symbiosis of humans, fire and the landscape into catastrophic disarray. Much of California is a yearround tinderbox, with fast-moving wildfires erupting so quickly this year that firefighters have rushed from one to the next, with the usual peak of the fire season still to come.

“It just takes one spark,” said Scott McLean, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting and forestry agency.

As heat-trapping gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and temperatures inch upward, drawing moisture from the soil and vegetation, the state’s vast landscape is growing increasingly volatile, costing lives and billions of dollars in fire damages.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8737270-181/its-getting-worse-climate-change

Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , , ,

California Climate change report adds to evidence as state pushes back on Trump

Phil McKenna, INSIDE CLIMATE NEWS

The assessment warns of increasing wildfires, worsening droughts and more severe coastal flooding. State lawmakers are looking for solutions in renewable energy.

California published a comprehensive assessment Monday of the risks global warming is creating for the state, providing a thick tome of evidence advocates can now use to push climate legislation, pursue litigation, and attempt to sway public opinion as they take on industry and try to counter the Trump administration.

The climate change assessment by the world’s 5th largest economy relied on dozens of peer-reviewed reports that detail the effects climate change is having today and what to expect in the future, including extreme wildfires, droughts, heat waves and floods that are projected to occur with increasing frequency and severity.

“In California, facts and science still matter,” Gov. Jerry Brown said. “These findings are profoundly serious and will continue to guide us as we confront the apocalyptic threat of irreversible climate change.”

Read more at https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27082018/california-climate-change-assessment-evidence-global-warming-science-risks-policy-clean-energy