Diablo Grande is one of several growing communities in California’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills facing a severe risk of wildfire. More than 380,000 people between Redding and Bakersfield live in areas that state and local officials have identified as high or very high wildfire hazard zones, according to an analysis of state and local emergency preparedness plans. Tens of thousands more in the Bay Area and Southern California also live in high-risk areas.
The population under threat is rapidly growing. As many as 1.2 million new homes will be built “in the highest wildfire risk areas” of California between 2000 and 2050, according to a 2014 research report by environmental scientists from around the state and country.
Not long after she bought her home in the grassy hills of western Stanislaus County, California, Julie Davis watched as a helicopter filled buckets of water from a nearby pond and attacked a windswept wildfire burning just outside her community.
The Diablo Grande resort area, where developers envision building hundreds of homes around two upscale golf courses about 8 miles west of Interstate 5, was spared. But Davis’ neighbors remain watchful. “If anyone sees smoke, almost immediately residents are notified through a social media page,” she said.
Despite the threats facing hundreds of thousands of Californians — and the still vivid memory of destructive wildfires that have roared through densely populated areas of the state over the past year — not enough attention is being spent on designing communities to withstand fires or on discouraging rapid growth in once rural areas, wildfire experts and scientists said. Instead, most of the focus has been on blaming public utilities for starting fires and on thinning forestland to reduce the timber that fuels fast-spreading blazes.
“How and where we are building is the under-represented, under-emphasized part of the whole problem,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California’s cooperative extension. “Right now, as the state is burning again, we should be hearing about this accountability issue. But what do we hear right now? Holding utilities accountable. That whole discussion is sort of a distraction from a longer-term conversation about a longer-term solution.”
It’s also not enough to blame the growing devastation of recent wildfires solely on climate change, researchers said. While drier, warmer conditions have lengthened the fire season and likely increased the severity of the blazes, wildfires are destroying more homes today than decades before only because of rapid growth in rural areas.
In other words, the fires aren’t getting closer to people. People are getting closer to the fires.
“We’re seeing wildfires that have always been a part of the landscape that are now interacting more and more with us — not just because they are getting larger, but because we’re building in wildfire-prone regions,” said Stephen Strader, a researcher and geographer at Villanova University. “If we don’t stop what we’re doing, this is only going to get worse.”
Strader studied wildfire history in the Western United States going back three decades, and then mapped population growth in areas where fire activity had ranged from medium to very high. His research found there were 600,000 homes in fire-prone areas in the West in 1940. Today, that number is around 7 million.
“We have to be very careful to readily assume this is just a climate change issue,” he said. “It is that, don’t get me wrong. But there are two sides to the coin. Fires and society are coming together more often than ever before.”
There are few places in the state where the wildfire threat is nonexistent.
More than 4,600 homes here in the state capital region face an elevated fire risk.
Cal Fire has recommended that officials in nearly 200 cities across the state declare that parts of their cities are in very high fire-hazard severity zones. That list includes major cities like Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego and Anaheim. Placerville, Auburn and Colfax also face extreme fire risk, Cal Fire said.
Cities and counties have for years been aware of the risks their residents face. Many local governments regularly update local hazard plans that detail the impacts of disasters on their communities, from flooding to volcanoes to drought. And the threat of wildfire.
At least 262,000 people in Central Valley and Sierra foothill counties live in areas that local fire departments and Cal Fire officials have identified as very high wildfire-risk zones. That includes roughly 66,000 people in Placer County, 60,000 in Nevada County and at least 10,000 people each in Butte, Fresno, El Dorado, Yuba, Amador and Calaveras counties.
In Sonoma County, where the Tubbs Fire destroyed more than 5,600 structures and killed 22, officials of the county and the city of Santa Rosa have begun streamlining the permit process for those seeking to rebuild homes destroyed in the blaze. That includes construction in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, a hillside enclave that was not only largely destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, but was also the site of the large Hanly Fire in 1964.
California building code requires that new buildings in very high fire-hazard severity zones have roofs with ignition-resistant materials, adequate exits and screens covering vents. Some local ordinances require fireproofing of homes during remodeling, according to Cal Fire.
However, the ultimate decision to approve home construction in high-risk zones is made by local planning departments. And those departments often do not communicate enough with state emergency officials or their own local public safety agencies, said Stephen Gort, executive director of the California Fire Safe Council.
“That responsibility (to approve homes in fire zones) lies with county planning departments and those county planning departments need to be taking (fire risk) factors into consideration,” Gort said. “Why aren’t planning departments reading those plans and reacting?”