California is Burning: Rethinking the Wildland/ (Sub)urban Interface

Drought. Flood. Fire. These, known as the ‘seasons’ of California, are more and more often regularly experienced rather than extreme exceptions as depicted in dystopian novels or film noir. The underbelly of the ‘Golden State’ is one of earthquakes, mudslides and wildfires, the latter of which has been creating ever-larger waves of evacuees and climate refugees. Traditionally, floods and mudslides had been in the late fall and winter; drought and fire had reliably been in late summer and early fall. Until 2017, no major fire had ever bewitched the state in December, at least since the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) began keeping records in 1932. After surveying in-progress damage, Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed that destructive and deadly wildfires in winter are “the new normal” for natural disasters. It has become clear, amongst enlightened politicians, but as well, fire ecologists, urbanists and developers, that nothing less than a revolution in land management and humankind’s relationship to fire is a both a moral responsibility and necessity for survival.


The Thomas Fire burns in the Los Padres National Forest, near Ojai. (© Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, 8 December 2017)


In October, seven fires ravaged Northern California’s Wine Country: an undulating landscape of vineyards, ranches, and suburban tracts spread across Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The fires are considered the state’s most costly and injurious wildfire disaster. There were 44 deaths and according to Cal Fire, 8,889 structures were destroyed; the California Department of Insurance reported that insured losses topped US$9 billion (7.5 billion euro) (as of early December and are still climbing). Entire neighborhoods, from a working-class mobile home park to multi-million dollar estates, were transformed into ashen wastelands littered with melted cars and eerie standing chimneys. In December, the Southern California fires—from the State’s largest ever recorded, north of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties (Thomas Fire, with 114,000 hectares consumed and still uncontained as of 1 January 2018) to ones on the outskirts of L.A. itself (Creek, Rye, Skirball and Horizon Fires) to San Diego (Lilac Fire)—brought scenes of apocalyptic destruction. For weeks on end, entire communities were emptied and thousands of firefighters (from Cal Fire and significantly boosted with US$2/day (1.7 euro/day) ‘firefighter inmates’ from the state prison system) battled blazes spurred by intense winds and extremely dry conditions.


Firefighters from CAL FIRE and Miramonte Inmate Fire Crew 2 work together to create a wide fire break along US Route 50 in the King Fire, northern California. (© Environmental Protection Agency, 2014)


The typical narrative in the wide-spread news coverage has been that of compassion, grief, anxiety and disbelief; there have been countless explanations of the severity of the fires as a unique confluence of environmental factors: warming weather/high temperatures, stubborn high-pressure zones/ strong winds (called Diablo in the north and Santa Ana in the south) and dry western landscapes/ ample vegetation (particularly coastal sage and chaparral) available as fuel. Yet, the reality of California’s wildfire epidemic is part-and-parcel of a more complex socio-ecological construct. Twentieth century practices of unnatural fire suppression and protecting forests through thinning have proven to be unsustainable forest management habits and, during the past decades, there has been the rampant proliferation of reckless policies and billions of dollars of financial incentives to spurn unchecked development in the high-risk zone known as the wildland-urban interface.

The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the area where human settlement intermingles with, or abuts, unoccupied wildland vegetation. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison’s SILVIS Lab, the interface areas have more than 1 house per 16 hectares, have less than 50 percent vegetation, and are within a 2.4 kilometer distance of an area (made up of one or more contiguous Census blocks) over 500 hectares that is more than 75 percent vegetated. The WUI is a focal area for human–environment conflicts, such as the destruction by wildfires, habitat fragmentation, introduction of exotic species, and biodiversity decline. Although many WUI delineations do not specifically access wildfire potential, the WUI is a major consideration in US federal wildfire management policy. According to the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), the U.S. encompasses 0.93 billion hectares of land of which 0.4 billion are government held (federal, state and local parks and forests) and privately-owned wildlands. An additional 89 million hectares have been designed by State Foresters as high-risk for wildland-urban interface fire. Since 1990, the U.S. has experienced an unprecedented conversion-growth rate of 1.2 hectares acres per minute, 1619 hectares per day, equaling nearly 1 million hectares per year of conversion from wildlands to wildland-urban interface. Approximately 10% of the U.S. land area is classified as WUI; it contains close to 40% of all homes. WUI areas are particularly widespread in the eastern part of the country, while California has the highest number of WUI housing units.


According to CAL FIRE, since 1932, when accurate records started to be kept, 13 of the 20 largest fires in California have occurred since 2000. The Thomas Fire, burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, is one of multiple wildfires that ignited in Southern California in December 2017. (© RUA, December 2017)


Headwaters Economics, a Montana nonprofit research group that focuses on land management, reported in a 2014 whitepaper that a mere 16% of the WUI been developed in the West, leaving room for huge increases in fire vulnerability if local planning boards continue to approve developments there.


Northern California Fires since 2000. (© RUA, December 2017)


Throughout California—after the most destructive year of wildfires in its history—post-fire times are vexed. Rebuilding is emotionally and politically fraught with homeowners fixated on the ‘memory of place’ (often translating to proximity to nature, beautiful views and even remoteness), while many experts seriously question the very notion of building/ living in high-risk fire zones and the need to dramatically change forest management policies and practices. At the same time, a ‘disaster capitalism’ (as infamously termed by Naomi Klein) mentality has also proved that socio-economic divides can become deeper as price gorging and evictions follow in the wake of fires; the trend is an unintended consequence of California’s housing shortage and steeping rising rents.


Southern California Fires since 2000. (© RUA, December 2017)


It is clear to many that fundamental land-use reform is necessary. The question becomes where to place the incentive, since the nexus of fire hazard and economic pressures is a tricky puzzle. On one hand, there could be methods to reverse economic pressure, including the preemptive purchase of land or development rights in fire-prone areas, whether before or after a fire; funds could come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund or local bond elections. On another hand, there is discussion to compensate property owners to not rebuild—or use economic pressure to discourage developers from building in the first place, including promoting higher fire insurance rates (linking the right to build and the inevitable cost of firefighting and recovery), the introduction of mechanisms to require payment for increased fire protection and holding local agencies financially responsible for fire losses of developments they approved. The state’s fire hazard maps also need urgent revision. The Cal Fire maps (drawn in the early 2000s) are largely based on vegetation and topography; they cover broad swaths of the state with gradations from moderate to very high fire hazard. Recalculating risk and remapping for vulnerabilities (planned for 2018) will need to include the age of housing stock, types of vegetation, and state of the roads and communications in case of evacuations. Building codes are likely to be revised as will compliance enforcement with existing regulations, such as vegetation management (clearance) by homeowners and the ‘spare the air’ days’ banning use of fireplaces, wood stoves and outdoor fire pits.

As difficult as it will be to revise the financial and real estate juggernaut of suburbanization in fire-prone ecosystems, it will not be enough to extinguish the California’s flames. The scorched landscapes of California are potent evidence that humankind must profoundly rethink the nature and culture relationship. Stewardship of the landscape must go hand-in-hand with rethinking settlement in high-risk zones. Many experts in fire ecology and land management are calling to fight fire with fire, through allowing natural fires to burn and setting controlled (prescribed) burns. During the past century—contrary to indigenous peoples’ practice of burning woodlands as a way to remove underbrush, fight pests, more easily spot prey and protect homes from wildfire—fire suppression has been aggressively pursued. However, the fact remains that fire plays a vital role in the maintenance of the health of ecosystems: it promotes a mosaic of vegetation of forests, grasslands and shrub lands and it stimulates the establishment and growth of particular trees and other types of plants (in fact, some wildland species require fire to regenerate). Fire-opened stands make large trees healthier by reducing competition for water and nutrients, which, in turn, improves their odds in both fire and drought. Big trees are generally more fire resistant, meaning they’re more likely to survive a fire and continue to soak up carbon afterward.


Following the devastating fires, landslides now threaten vast swaths of the once vegetated hills, here in La Conchita—a small unincorporated community in western Ventura County on U.S. Route 101 just southeast of the Santa Barbara County line. (© Doc Searls, 11 December 2017)


California is burning. The wildfires are a pars pro toto for many of the state’s challenges and woes. First and foremost, the climate is changing, with hotter, drier weather. And California—which considers itself a global leader on climate change—is unavoidably confronted by its innate geography and geology and where public health and environmental threats rise with the frequency and severity of wildfires. Fires offset hard-won greenhouse gas emissions, since they release massive quantities of carbon dioxide and other hazardous greenhouse gases into the air. A 2015 UC Berkeley/ National Park Service study found that California’s forests emitted more carbon than they soaked up between 2001 and 2010. Particulate matter, carbon, ozone, volatile organic compounds, trace gases, air toxics and mercury can all threaten the public during wildfires—not only through air pollution, but as well with water and soil contamination. Fires also greaten the threat of mudslides and although rainfall is predicted to be less than average in 2018, forecasters ominously warn it takes only strong rainstorm to trigger a slide on fire-stricken and unprotected hillsides. Second, expansive suburban development in proximity to nature expands as homeless encampments swell, not only revealing juxtapositions of extreme wealth and poverty, but also underscoring the severity of the housing crisis and its capacity for unforeseen and devastating consequences. The Skirball Fire, in the notoriously well-to-do L.A. neighborhood of Bel-Air, was ignited by a homeless person’s cooking fire. Third, are infrastructural woes and its urgent need for maintenance. A number of the Sonoma County fires were ignited by downed Pacific Gas and Electric transformers and power lines and there is discussion to swap out wooden structures for stronger materials or eventually relocate underground. Fourth, are threats to the economy. The fires wiped out wine harvests in the north and citrus and avocado crops in the south: it also slowed tourism.


Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, 90 kilometers north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, lost thousands of homes and businesses in the Tubbs Fire. (© California National Guard, 11 October 2017)


The context of the ‘California dream’—with a reputation of where norms elsewhere do not apply—can become another great experiment for occupying the territory, if it employs the devastating fires as a wake-up call and forges ahead with bold policies, plans and projects for a new nature/ culture relationship. The linear, relatively rigid and predictable notions of urbanism, as a strong legacy of 20th century industrial society, clearly evades the underlying logics of contemporary ecologies. On the one hand, the cyclic nature of the disturbance regimes (such as fire) is shortening, while their unpredictability remains preeminent. On the other hand, there is a continued blurring of the (sub)urban and the countryside. Highly regulated (sub)urban restrictions and codes become redundant. Land-use planning, forest management and (sub)urbanism must urgently become more ecologically grounded, adaptive and resilient.


Published on January 9, 2018

One thought on "California is Burning: Rethinking the Wildland/ (Sub)urban Interface"

  1. Stephen Jones says:

    Thank you for a thought provoking and disturbing article. As a City of Pittsburgh Fire Captain I have dealt with several “brush fires”. We have a suprising amount of woodland which has a devastating potential. Your article puts more perspective on this situation.

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