A state of per­pet­ual dan­ger

San Francisco Chronicle - - OPINION -

With smoke still bil­low­ing, ridge lines aglow and evac­u­a­tion or­ders ar­riv­ing daily, Cal­i­for­ni­ans are strug­gling to cope with the emer­gen­cies cre­ated by 22 wild­fires burn­ing across the state. It’s not too early, though, to think about how we will re­build, and more im­por­tant, how we will re­build to live with fire.

Fire is as much part of the Golden State as our Mediter­ranean cli­mate and oak­stud­ded hills. But where we live and how we live doesn’t re­spect that fire is a peren­nial hazard — just as bliz­zards are part of liv­ing in Min­nesota and hur­ri­canes come with Flor­ida’s beaches and sway­ing palms. That is why it came as such a shock to Santa Rosa res­i­dents this week — and to Oakland hills res­i­dents 26 years ago — that an Oc­to­ber wild­land fire could sweep through their ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods and in­cin­er­ate their homes.

We pay lit­tle at­ten­tion when wild­fires scorch re­mote forests. As the state’s pop­u­la­tion has grown, how­ever, more and more peo­ple have moved to the ur­ban fringe or far­ther out to less ex­pen­sive ru­ral lands. The re­sults are re­vealed in the grim sta­tis­tics re­ported this week from Napa, Sonoma, Men­do­cino, and Solano coun­ties: 29 dead, and more than 3,500 homes and busi­nesses de­stroyed in the most deadly wild­fire in the state’s re­cent his­tory.

Stephen Strader, a ge­og­ra­pher at Vil­lanova Univer­sity who has writ­ten on nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and so­ci­ety, calls it the ex­pand­ing bull’s eye ef­fect. “The fires have al­ways oc­curred, but we no­tice them more now be­cause there are more hu­man con­tacts.”

Few res­i­dents of what sci­en­tists call the wild­lan­dur­ban in­ter­face un­der­stand the risks in­her­ent with choos­ing to live there. Ed­u­ca­tion is the first step.

The sec­ond is to en­sure land-use poli­cies take those risks into ac­count and that ev­ery­one abides by the rules de­signed to pro­tect the en­tire com­mu­nity.

A quick look at the City of Santa Rosa’s maps des­ig­nat­ing wild­land-ur­ban in­ter­face fire-hazard ar­eas shows they in­clude the Foun­tain­grove neigh­bor­hood, which was dev­as­tated Mon­day by the Tubbs Fire, but not ar­eas to the west of High­way 101, which also burned. Such a des­ig­na­tion af­fects land val­ues, in­sur­ance costs and avail­abil­ity, build­ing codes and clear­ance re­quire­ments, but the stan­dards and en­force­ment varies. Statewide poli­cies would help lo­cal of­fi­cials ap­ply uni­form stan­dards.

Third, curb sprawl: Af­ford­able hous­ing shouldn’t mean push­ing vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple into fire-prone ar­eas, where their safety is at greater risk. Santa Rosa Coun­cil­woman Julie Combs told The Chron­i­cle the city was poised to help res­i­dents re­build quickly. “I’m hop­ing we can con­vince them to build an ad­di­tional dwelling unit (on their prop­erty) and help oth­ers.”

“Smart growth” of­ten is billed as land-use poli­cies to save the en­vi­ron­ment. Smart growth also helps re­duce our exposure to dis­as­ter.

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