A state of perpetual danger
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.