Destined to Burn: Living under the threat of wildfire in California
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.