Burning Question: Can California Prevent the Next Wildfire?
By Glen Martin
Cal Alumni Association, UC Berkeley
30 October 2017
Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times
In the wake of the Northern California firestorms, which destroyed at least 8,400 homes and buildings, officials are now wondering what could have been done to reduce the severity of the damage. Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Joe McBride argues that effective wildfire risk reduction is difficult to coordinate. McBride reveals that although cities and municipal or regional agencies are responsible for resolving fuel buildup and the removal of other potential fire safety hazards, this precautionary measure is often disrupted.
“Cities particularly are supposed to do annual inspections, notify people if there’s a problem, and then take enforcement actions, including hiring contractors to do cleanup work and billing the homeowner,” McBride said. “But people get resentful when local authorities try to vigorously enforce safety regulations. They bring their own pressures to bear, and then necessary things simply aren’t done.”
In addition to this failure to remove potentially hazardous materials, city officials also risk further wildfire damage as there is an incentive for city council members to encourage development and expansion which consequently leads to the construction of homes on land that has an extreme fire risk. Often times, fire safety measures are either minimized or ignored altogether.
Beyond overdevelopment, the perpetually changing climate is also impacting the risk for damage during wildfires. Climate change has resulted in hotter, driers and longer fire seasons which causes wildfires to behave in unexpected and catastrophic ways.
So what can be done to resolve this conundrum? McBride suggests that it is important to divest cities of some of their regulatory authority and invest it within the states. State agencies are far more immune to the intimidation of local developers and are less interested in local municipal and county tax bases.
McBride cites the formation of the California Coastal Commission as a model example for this solution. “Before the Coastal Commission was authorized, each coastal city planned for its own best interests in terms of zoning, and those interests weren’t necessarily aligned with coastal preservation or access,” says McBride. “Once the commission started overseeing things, though, we got much better zoning and oversight of the coast. Most of the coast is now preserved.”.
McBride continues, “A similar agency for wildfire regulations and enforcement – essentially a California Fire Commission – might make similar progress in community fire protection in terms of zoning and enforcing clean-up and defensible space requirements.”
McBride also suggests that it is important to be strategic with landscaping choices in this changing climate. He states that exotic trees, such as eucalyptus and Monterey pine, have particular oils and resins that burn explosively. These trees can produce flame lengths of 200 feet or more and therefore, make controlling a fire difficult. Conversely, grasslands and native oak savannas burn easily, but are low intensity and can be controlled more easily by firefighters.
McBride also states that fire risk can be reduced with strategic architecture. For example, homes without roof overhangs are better for fire-prone areas as overhangs tend to trap burning cinders. Furthermore, windows are also a target entry point for heat. “Heat from wildfires can transfer directly through windows and ignite walls opposite the windows without the glass breaking,” He thus encourages the design of protective shutters to prevent the transfer of heat from windows.
To read more about McBride’s recommendations for reducing fire damage risk, click here.