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Climate change and energy

California needs to reinvent its fire policies, or the death and destruction will go on

Reducing the escalating destruction from fires will mean rethinking development patterns, forest management, early warning systems, and more.
November 15, 2018
An aerial view of a neighborhood in Paradise, California destroyed by the Camp Fire
An aerial view of a neighborhood in Paradise, California destroyed by the Camp FireJustin Sullivan | Getty Images

A week after flames first ripped through Paradise, California, nearly destroying the ridgeline community in the Sierra Nevada foothills, thousands of firefighters are still battling to contain the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history.

The Camp Fire, which has killed 56 and counting, is one of more than a dozen blazes still burning in the state and comes amid a two-year stretch of exceedingly devastating infernos. Decades of development along wilderness boundaries, antiquated forest management practices and shifting climate conditions—including scorching summer temperatures, low humidity, and high winds—have turned vast areas of California into dry tinderboxes that burn fast and fiercely when set alight.

There is no single or simple strategy that will prevent more of these tragedies. But a number of changes in practices and policies could lessen the dangers.

Land use and zoning

States, cities, developers, and residents need to reconsider whether to construct or expand communities on the edges of California’s forests and hot-burning shrub lands. And towns need building codes more suitable to the fire zone.

“We’re building in the wildland-urban interface at unprecedented rates,” says Alice Hill, a Hoover Institution research fellow who served as senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “And we don’t yet have buildings codes that adequately protect us against the types of fires we’re seeing.”

The wood shake roofs and wooden decks popular for homes nestled in forest settings are effectively kindling, says Malcolm North, a research scientist with the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station. And all it takes is one highly flammable structure to generate the embers and heat that could take down a neighborhood of homes.

To lessen the dangers, state or local governments could require fire-resistant building materials, like stone, brick, and cement; prevent development or further expansion into these areas; discourage rebuilding in places that have burned repeatedly; force residents to maintain trees and other vegetation on their property; and ensure there are adequate escape routes, and points from which to combat fires, in the event of fast-moving blazes.

A number of insurance companies are reportedly already canceling policies or raising rates for properties in some of California’s high-fire-risk areas. That will make it increasingly expensive or untenable for residents to build or own a home in these places.

Forest management

The growing severity of fires deep within forests is an entirely separate problem that requires an entirely different response.

The long-standing US policy has been to put out fires and otherwise minimally manage most federal and state forest lands. That’s created a dangerous buildup of fuel, setting the stage for fires that spread farther and are harder to combat.

Both the US Forest Service and the state of California have been slowly changing those approaches, removing some trees and brush and conducting limited prescribed burns. In May, Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order doubling the land area where forest growth could be thinned through controlled fires and other measures.

Controlled fires are controversial, and they raise real liability issues. But the public, politicians, and agencies need to get used to them, because they work.

“The only way you’ll get to the pace and scale required to affect fire risk is … to really bump up the area you’re treating with prescribed fire and managed wildfire,” North says. 

Preventing sparks

Humans spark some 90% of wildfires, by burning debris, failing to put out campfires, flinging cigarettes, and the like, according to the National Park Service. But after a half-century of Smokey Bear warnings, it’s clear that public service announcements aren’t enough.

One area where focused efforts could make a bigger difference is utility-sparked fires, says Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. While downed transmission lines and overloaded transformers start a small minority of fires overall, they’ve been implicated in many of the most destructive California fires, including last year’s Wine Country fires and the 2015 Valley fire. In addition, PG&E, the state’s largest utility, has informed California regulators that a line was having problem near where the Camp Fire began.

Utilities like PG&E can harden transmission systems by trimming vegetation more aggressively, monitoring more frequently, installing more durable equipment, or improving “broken-line-detection and control” systems. But various factors limit the ultimate effectiveness of these measures, like the simple fact that many trees at risk of knocking down lines lie outside the utility’s easements.

Given the high dangers and growing liabilities from these events, utilities are increasingly shutting off lines in areas at high risk of wildfires, cutting the flow of electricity to entire towns when winds whip up around communities near dense, dry forests.

There is, of course, pushback among the thousands of residents and businesses affected when this happens, which makes utilities reluctant to take this step.

“The best way to keep people safe is to de-energize the lines more, to have a hair trigger on that blackout switch,” Wara says. “But in order to do that, you need to mitigate the impacts.”

That, he says, will require investing in more distributed generation and storage in communities facing higher wildfire risks, adding small renewable generation and battery backup systems that could allow hospitals, schools, businesses, and even homes to stay online during these temporary outages.

Of course, installing such systems would have a high up-front cost—and one that would likely be at least partially passed on to ratepayers already dealing with some of the nation’s highest monthly bills. 

Warning technology

Many of the Camp Fire deaths occurred as residents were fleeing their homes, in some cases while trapped in their vehicles on clogged roads.

Hill says there are various technologies that could help provide earlier detection and warning to towns, including remote sensors, phone-based emergency notification systems, and satellite and artificial-intelligence tools that can spot or predict fires. Other devices like drones can help combat the blazes by pinpointing hot spots, peering through smoke, and dropping supplies.

But North says most of the work needs to happen on the front end, avoiding the buildup of fuels and preventing ignition in the first place. Once the fires actually start, technology can only help on the margins.

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