With wildfires raging more uncontrollably in the West than they have in the past, experts say it’s time to change the way we fight them. The battle now starts at home, where people live, before a spark ever ignites a flame in a nearby forest or brush.
Until recently, efforts to keep people and property safe have largely focused on preventing and fighting off wildland blazes where they start. That includes beefing up the firefighting force and managing forests so that dry vegetation doesn’t become tinder for a mega blaze. But that alone won’t be enough as climate change fuels more intense fire seasons each year. Communities now need to adapt to an unstoppable threat.
“That’s no longer an assumption we can safely rest upon”
“We are nested in this belief and this assumption that we can domesticate wildfires to the point where we will be safe from it. The reality is that with climate change and the scale, the pace, and the severity with which wildfires are currently burning, that’s no longer an assumption we can safely rest upon,” says Kimiko Barrett, lead wildfire researcher at the nonprofit Headwaters Economics.
Fifteen of the 20 most destructive fires in the state’s history have taken place since just 2015. Last year alone, blazes tore through a shocking 4 million acres of the Golden State, smashing the previous record of roughly 2 million acres scorched in a single fire season.
“These fires are just reaching a magnitude where we can’t just say we’ll treat the forest and we’ll be okay,” Barrett says. “You have to start bringing the human dimension to this now. What, as a society should we be doing differently in terms of where and how we build?”
California has already rebuilt itself in response to another type of disaster: earthquakes. The 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake was the most recent wake-up call in 1994. It sparked a rush to change building codes and upgrade existing structures. Buildings and freeway bridges were reinforced. Los Angeles mandated retrofits.
Now, there’s a call to do something similar for fires. It’s getting louder, especially as more people spread out into more rural areas within what’s called the Wildland Urban Interface. While there’s been some finger-pointing at people who decide to live closer to where wildfires burn, some experts warn against blaming those most vulnerable. Housing in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and even in their surrounding suburbs, is becoming increasingly unaffordable. That forces people out of city centers and closer to where wildfires burn.
“We have a housing crisis,” says Crystal Kolden, a former firefighter who is now an assistant professor at the School of Engineering at the University of California, Merced. For her, asking residents to move to less fire-prone areas is unfair and unrealistic. “We don’t do that for other natural hazards.”
“We have a housing crisis.”
“All the people that are saying, ‘Well, why do people live in these rural fire prone areas?’ are the ones that are sitting on a massive earthquake fault,” she says. “They are the beneficiaries of massive federal and state infrastructure upgrade projects that made those cities less vulnerable to earthquakes.”
California is already ahead of other states when it comes to implementing building standards for fire safety, but there’s a lot of work left to do. Back in 2008, California created a new building code requiring fire-resistant construction. That proved to be a success when the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, tore through Butte County in 2018. Over half of the homes built after 2008 stayed standing, according to a McClatchy analysis. But most of the homes in the area are older. Of those, far fewer — just 18 percent — were spared from the blaze.
In the absence of state-wide mandates for older structures, it’s largely been up to individuals to harden their homes against blazes (although there are stricter standards in some of the most fire-prone areas). Some homeowners have made headlines, like an engineer in Sonoma County who took 15 years working to fireproof his home — filling his walls and covering his windows with flame-resistant materials. His house was put to the test during the 2019 Kincade Fire that destroyed 374 structures nearby. His home survived.
Beyond using materials that don’t easily catch fire (especially for rooftops), property owners can also take care to prevent embers from finding their way inside by replacing vents. Creating a “defensible space” around a home is also crucial; homeowners should have a buffer zone around their home that’s free from vegetation or other materials that could become dry fuel, according to experts.
Those changes are most effective when they’re widespread. “It cannot be one home alone. It has to be ubiquitous across the neighborhood,” Barrett says. “Voluntary measures don’t work. You could have five neighbors that agreed to mitigate their property but you’ve had that one neighbor [that’s] centrally located and they don’t believe they need to do anything. So, he exposes the rest of his neighborhood to wildfire.”
While some might choose not to make fire-minded improvements, other households might not be able to afford the retrofits needed to keep their home and community safe. “There’s just not the resources to do a lot of the work that we know is effective in reducing wildfire hazards,” Kolden says. “But it is a societal problem, not an individual problem, and that’s why it’s a social justice issue.”
“It cannot be one home alone.”
That makes a state-wide strategy for updating older homes all the more important. State agencies announced in February that they will come up with new standards for homes and communities to “harden” themselves against fire, part of a broader effort to make it easier to insure homes. And a $536 million wildfire prevention bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in April provides some financial assistance to residents to start that work on their properties.
There still might not be enough funding to reach everyone and keep costs from racking up for lower-income households. In May, Newsom proposed an unprecedented $2 billion for wildfire preparedness. But most of the money would still go toward firefighting and forest management. Of that, $40 million is earmarked for retrofitting existing homes. (There’s another $250 million chunk for making communities more resilient to disasters, including wildfires, earthquakes, droughts, and coastal flooding.) In comparison, a wildfire planning strategy outlined in a recent Stanford white paper calls for $1 billion a year for home hardening.
“I believe state government has recognized the need to incentivize or subsidize or help support communities engaged in retrofitting for safety,” says J. Keith Gilless, dean emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and chair of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Although, you know, the total magnitude of the problem is huge.”