2021 Workshop

Building to Burn

Agents from the California Office of Emergency Services conduct a helicopter flyover of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, after the Tubbs Fire in 2017. [Courtesy California Office of Emergency Services]

In 2017, the Tubbs Fire ravaged the city of Santa Rosa, California. The fire was so intense and the wind so strong that embers jumped six lanes of the 101 Freeway to ignite homes. Fire destroyed more than 1,000 houses in the suburban neighborhood of Coffey Park, an area assumed to be so safe that it wasn’t even included on California’s wildfire risk maps.1Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal, “Despite Clear Risks, Santa Rosa Neighborhood that Burned Down was Exempt from State Fire Regulations,” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2017. The fire was the most destructive in California history, a title it held for only one year.2See California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “Top 20 Most Destructive California Wildfires.

After the Tubbs Fire, the city of Santa Rosa worked to expedite permits that would allow those who lost homes to rebuild in place. Neighborhoods were reconstructed as quickly as possible, with no updated wildfire code requirements.3Jesse Roman, “Build. Burn. Repeat?,” National Fire Protection Association Journal, January 2, 2018. The intention was to help residents return to a sense of normalcy, but it proved a risky strategy. Just two years after the Tubbs Fire, the Kincade Fire swept through almost the same area and threatened to burn the barely rebuilt Coffey Park.4Susie Cagle, “‘This Time Feels Worse’: California Fire Has Troubling Echoes of 2017 Blaze,” The Guardian, October 28, 2019.

It is increasingly obvious that rebuilding in place will not sufficiently protect communities in the future.

Santa Rosa is not alone in experiencing the threat of repetitive loss. Across the state, in counties like Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Butte, which have endured fire after fire after fire, it is increasingly obvious that rebuilding in place will not sufficiently protect communities in the future. Community resilience is a key concept in disaster management, and it’s usually defined as a community’s ability to recover after experiencing disaster. In the case of wildfire devastation, recovery has traditionally been synonymous with rebuilding. But this assumes that it’s possible to simply rebuild and leave the past behind. What if that’s not possible? As wildfires continue to rage, perhaps the greater act of community resilience is to leave the area, permanently.

Climate change, increased density in wildfire hazard zones, and fire-control techniques that have misguidedly excluded fire from fire-dependent ecosystems have resulted in wildfires that are increasingly intense and catastrophic.5See A. Paige Fisher et al., “Wildfire Risk as a Socioecological Pathology,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Vol. 14 Issue 5 (June 2016): 276-84. Those who help manage communities vulnerable to wildfire, particularly local and statewide policymakers, have a responsibility to stop perpetuating the cycle of rebuilding to burn.

If rebuilding houses in place is not smart policy, why does it keep happening? The housing crisis, which has left the State of California with a deficit of millions of affordable homes, makes policymakers less willing to pass laws restricting development, even in hazard zones.6Annie Lowrey, “California Is Becoming Unlivable,” The Atlantic, October 30, 2019. Rather than catalyze housing development in safer, high-amenity communities through statewide urban upzoning policies, politicians have tended to bow to residents who decry calls for increased density in their neighborhoods.7Alissa Walker, “The Real Reason California’s Upzoning Bill Failed,” Curbed, February 7, 2020. As a result, many towns build and rebuild in increasingly risky locations just to meet minimum housing demand. The housing crisis is dire enough that it’s difficult to imagine a California town agreeing to lose housing units, whether by prohibiting rebuilding after fire, or restricting new construction in areas prone to risk. And should a homeowner want to move to safer ground, it’s often not economically feasible. The limited housing supply means that rebuilding in place is often a homeowner’s only choice.

Scenes from Malibu, California, during the 2018 Woolsey Fire in 2018. [Courtesy California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection]

When will California reach a tipping point, in which the physical and emotional costs of repeated wildfires become untenable, and the only option is to retreat? Some scholars have been asking this question for decades. More than 25 years ago, in his 1995 article, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” Mike Davis pointed out that not only were houses successively rebuilt after catastrophic wildfires in Malibu, but there was actually increased development in areas of extreme risk.8Mike Davis, “The Case For Letting Malibu Burn,” Environmental History Review, Vol. 19 Issue 2 (Summer 1995), 1-36, https://doi.org/10.2307/3984830. He presciently warned that the “accelerated suburbanization of the fire-belt also makes it more likely that major conflagrations will occur simultaneously, thus stretching regional (mutual aid) manpower reserves to their limit.”9Davis, 31-32.

Wildfire is an inevitability, and this means that Californians need to begin building for the future, even if that means not rebuilding at all.

Malibu did continue to burn, and Davis’s cautionary tale about simultaneous “major conflagrations” happened exactly as he’d predicted: In 2018, the Camp Fire in Paradise and the Woolsey Fire in the Thousand Oaks area of Los Angeles ignited on the very same day. The Woolsey Fire burned all the way from the mountains to the ocean, destroying over 1,600 structure. The Camp Fire, which destroyed the City of Paradise, killed 85 people, and 14,000 lost their homes.10Mallory Moench, ‘People Are Soul Tired’: 2 Years after the Camp Fire Destroyed Paradise, Only a Fraction of Homes Have Been Rebuilt,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 08, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2021.

These past fires, and the threat of fire seasons even more devastating than that of 2020, when four million acres of land burned, are telling us something important. Unfortunately, policymakers are not truly listening.

To contend with the rampant local NIMBY-ism that has prevented more affordable housing development in safer areas, the state recently passed legislation that upzones all California single-family properties — regardless of wildfire risk.11Housing development: approvals. S.B. 9 Cal. (2021-22), Chapter 162 (Cal. Stat. 2021). A similar policy passed in late 2019 requires jurisdictions to allow Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, to be permitted in all areas — again regardless of wildfire risk.12Land Use: accessory dwelling units. A.B. 68 Cal. (2019-20), Chapter 655 (Cal. Stat. 2019). Both decisions, are helpful in theory, but neither guarantees that any new units will actually be affordable. These policies may even result in a higher density of construction in wildfire-hazard areas.  

Californians are living in the midst of climate catastrophe. The worst drought in decades has blanketed the North American West Coast; record heat has devastated communities across California and beyond, and wildfire is an inevitability.13See California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “2020 Incident Archive,” (government website); and Nadja Popovich, “How Severe Is the Western Drought? See for Yourself,” The New York Times, June 11, 2021. It is simply not safe, or sustainable, for the State to continue building and rebuilding entire towns. Policymakers owe it to the millions of Californians who are endangered in wildfire hazard zones to make it easier, cheaper, and faster to build quality affordable housing in areas of lesser risk. California needs to begin building for the future, even if that means not building or rebuilding in unsafe locations at all.

Notes

  1. Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal, “Despite Clear Risks, Santa Rosa Neighborhood that Burned Down was Exempt from State Fire Regulations,” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2017.
  2. See California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “Top 20 Most Destructive California Wildfires.
  3. Jesse Roman, “Build. Burn. Repeat?,” National Fire Protection Association Journal, January 2, 2018.
  4. Susie Cagle, “‘This Time Feels Worse’: California Fire Has Troubling Echoes of 2017 Blaze,” The Guardian, October 28, 2019.
  5. See A. Paige Fisher et al., “Wildfire Risk as a Socioecological Pathology,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Vol. 14 Issue 5 (June 2016): 276–84.
  6. Annie Lowrey, “California Is Becoming Unlivable,” The Atlantic, October 30, 2019.
  7. Alissa Walker, “The Real Reason California’s Upzoning Bill Failed,” Curbed, February 07, 2020.
  8. Mike Davis, “The Case For Letting Malibu Burn,” Environmental History Review, Vol. 19 Issue 2 (Summer 1995), 1-36, https://doi.org/10.2307/3984830.
  9. Davis, 31-32.
  10. Mallory Moench, “‘People Are Soul Tired’: 2 Years after the Camp Fire Destroyed Paradise, Only a Fraction of Homes Have Been Rebuilt,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 08, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2021.
  11. Housing development: approvals. S.B. 9 Cal. (2021-22), Chapter 162 (Cal. Stat. 2021).
  12. Land Use: accessory dwelling units. A.B. 68 Cal. (2019-20), Chapter 655 (Cal. Stat. 2019).
  13. See California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “2020 Incident Archive,” (government website); and Nadja Popovich, “How Severe Is the Western Drought? See for Yourself,” The New York Times, June 11, 2021.

About the Author

Katie Oran

Katie Oran is a California native and a recent graduate of Cornell University’s Master of Regional Planning program. Her thesis constituted one of the first explorations of managed retreat in the context of wildfire mitigation. Oran earned her B.S. in Environmental Planning, Policy, and Law from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and is currently working in Northern California as a Program Associate with the Community Wildfire Planning Center.