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Millions of Calif. Homes Are in Fire-Prone Areas. Researchers Say It’s Time To Reimagine Where Peo

Millions of Californians are at risk of losing their homes to wildfire.

When tragedy strikes, people often rebuild in the same risky places, according to researchers at UC Berkeley and Next 10, a nonprofit think tank, who are urging California policymakers to rethink how communities are rebuilt after destructive wildfires.

The academics want state policymakers to encourage rebuilding efforts away from fire-prone areas, many of which are increasingly risky places to live as warming temperatures bake forests across California, priming them to burn.  

“This is really important in a state where the focus has been on specific [wildfire] mitigation measures such as hardening homes, prescribed burns, fuel breaks, and not on land use planning, not on making more sustainable settlement patterns around the state,” said report co-author Karen Chapple, an urban planning professor and director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation. “It’s about thinking about what our post-fire communities look like before the fire happens.”

More than 11 million Californians, roughly a quarter of the state’s population, live in high-risk wildfire areas known as the wildland-urban interface, or as its often referred to in academic circles, the WUI (pronounced woo-eee). Chapple says California’s housing crisis threatens to drive that number even higher.

“We have a housing crisis that is pushing housing out to the periphery of our urban areas. We’re building on peripheral land, on exurban land,” she said, “And that’s putting much more housing at risk than we’ve ever had before.”

Chapple adds that when wildfire hits, the state loses a portion of that housing stock, putting more pressure on the system.

Alternatives to ‘Rebuilding as Usual’

In a new report, Chapple and a group of Berkeley graduate students looked at rebuilding alternatives for three California communities that were hit hard by catastrophic fires over the last five years: Santa Rosa, Ventura and Paradise.

Following the Tubbs Fire in 2017, Chapple says, Santa Rosa’s planning division mobilized to help homeowners rebuild the homes they lost. But, she said, “They helped them rebuild right in place, right back in the wildland-urban interface. And what if they had instead looked at building in an alternative way?”

In one scenario, fire survivors would be given incentives to relocate to cities and other lower-risk areas (researchers call this “managed retreat”) and found it was the most effective way to pull people out of the path of destructive wildfires, potentially reducing the number of housing units in fire zones by more than 50% in Santa Rosa and Ventura, and to a lesser extent, Paradise.

A second scenario drives survivors toward pockets of development in rural areas with robust wildfire mitigation features, neighborhoods surrounded by defensible space to act as a fire break. Chapple describes these communities — what she calls “resilience nodes” — as mini villages or stand alone neighborhoods.

“This is a scenario where you would rebuild partly in the exurban areas or in the suburban areas, in the wildland-urban interface. But you would build with more density,” she said. “You would create dense, walkable nodes with small protective green buffers around them so people wouldn’t have to move totally out of their areas and into downtown, which a lot of people don’t want to do.”

Researchers compared these scenarios against what it labeled the typical “rebuilding as usual” strategy, noting that encouraging people to relocate to cities has added climate benefits.  Urbanites typically drive less and consume less energy (not to mention, have lower costs for transportation, power and water).

Conserving forested areas is beneficial, too. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, a planet warming gas contributing to climate change, which is a driver of extreme wildfire.

A Costly Problem

Building in fire-prone regions comes with financial risk. An analysis from Urban Footprint , a sustainability-focussed urban planning site, estimates the cost of rebuilding all of the 1.4 million homes located in California’s highest-risk fire zones to be around $600 billion.

These costs threaten to send insurance rates skyrocketing. 

“Ultimately, rates that adequately insure property that is endangered by wildfire will simply be too high for customers to pay, which means insurers may choose to get out of the market entirely, leaving homes in the WUI uninsurable,” Robert Olshansky, an urban and regional planning researcher at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, wrote in a statement. “If we continue with rebuilding as usual, it’s almost inevitable that a major insurance crisis lies ahead.”

The New York Times reported earlier this month that California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara endorsed a list of policy recommendations, floated by a state working group, aimed at curtailing development in wildfire hazard zones. Some insurers have already pulled out of regions prone to wildfire, making it harder for Californians to secure financial protection from potential home damage or loss.

Rebuilding Safer With ‘Carrots and Sticks’

Imagining what alternative rebuilding strategies could look like is one thing, finding feasible ways to implement them is another. Officials also have to ask people who’ve just endured the trauma of losing their homes and possessions to move away from their communities, potentially disrupting jobs, school and family — and that’s all the more difficult if a person lost a childhood home or their dream house.

Chapple says a couple solutions that might work could be a combination of new local zoning policies that would enable denser housing and statewide financial incentives to encourage residents to relocate. The state could also reserve funds to support subsidized housing when disaster strikes. 

She notes that renters, disadvantaged communities, communities of color and immigrants are more vulnerable to the displacement caused by wildfire; another set of policies could be necessary to support these people.

“How do you rethink your hazard mitigation and fire recovery policies to help people so they’re not doubly vulnerable?” she said.

The report recommends California policymakers discourage risky development, while incentivizing the development of more affordable housing in lower-risk areas. Prohibitively expensive fire insurance rates may also drive an exodus of people leaving forested, fire-prone areas.

Jim Thorne, a UC Davis landscape ecologist with no connection to the new report, says the idea of managed retreat is gaining traction for another climate-related crisis the state is facing: sea level rise.

“Many California cities are looking at that,” he said. “But this report is talking about managed retreat from areas in the WUI.”

He says the study could capture the attention of people who are living in these areas and “grappling with that insecurity of, ‘Wow, it’s really difficult to be sure that we’re going to be able maintain things here.’”

Incentivizing residents to relocate away from wildfire-prone areas could help, Thorne adds, but the lack of affordable housing in urban areas is still a concern.

“If you moved 500,000 units out of the WUI, where are you going to move them?” he said. Some research suggests the most effective strategy would be the creation of more infill housing units in urban areas around existing housing developments.

Thorne calls resilience nodes a “great idea,” even if it might not be all together practical.  A more realistic idea might be more akin to the ways in which the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has begun prioritizing wildfire-prone communities for vegetation removal and fire breaks.

“Even though those [areas] might not be planned as urban pods,” he said, “There’s already a recognition of, ‘hey, we need to do that.'”

Thorne says there is no single, magic solution. Solving this problem will be a process, a policy combination of “some carrots and sticks” along with “some ways of moving people around.”

“It won’t be a clean break where you just go, ‘Okay, now from here on out all the housing is going to go over here,'” he said. “We need to implement these types of resiliency measures, but how we go about it?  That’s one of the current challenges.”

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