The Straightforward Way to Make California Fires Less Deadly

2.7 million Californians live in the state’s highest risk fire zone.
Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

Everywhere he looks, California State Senator Henry Stern sees burning. “When you go through the trauma of fire, it sticks to you,” he says. “It stays in your head all the time and you’re obsessed with it.” When he was growing up in Malibu, bushfires were a way of life, but they were nothing compared to the Woolsey Fire, which swept across the Stern neighborhood in 2018, burning 97,000 acres and destroying 1,600 structures – including his home. The blaze also killed three people, but that figure does not include Stern’s own grandfather, who used a wheelchair and was evacuated from the area with difficulty; Stern believes that the chaos and discomfort of that day contributed to his death a few months later. So when a silver plume coiled over the ridge in the Topanga Canyon neighborhood in Stern last Saturday, on a gray May morning with patchy drizzle and almost no wind, Stern’s reflexes immediately kicked in. put on alert, although he initially hoped it would be just fog. But Stern’s instincts were right, and what would become the fire of the 1,150-acre stockades has since sparked the evacuation of 1000 people in the first big fire of the year in Southern California.

Weeks earlier, Stern had brought forward critical legislation that could significantly reduce this pervasive anxiety for the 11 million people who live in the state’s wild-urban interface, or WUI. But with each year’s fire season starting earlier – or, perhaps, not actually ending the previous year? – Stern feels a rush of urgency whenever he spots highly flammable and invasive yellow mustard germination on the side of the road or a neighbor who does not have sealed their garage door to protect it from the embers of the wind. “It’s really a ‘where’ or ‘when’, not an ‘if’,” he says. “Every night I go to bed and I’m like – is that going to be it?”

Although Gov. Gavin Newsom invested $ 536 million in a fire plan last month – mostly aimed at fuel reduction and forest thinning – what Stern is proposing is the state’s first comprehensive effort to prevent loss of life and property by regulating where people can build. This, it can be said, is a more appropriate approach for a state facing not only a climate emergency, but also a housing crisis: the number of houses that burned down in 2020 was equal to one-seventh of new ones built in the country. State during the same year, says Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “The future will make last year normal,” says Wara, who describes the state’s efforts to date as climbing an escalator the wrong way. “We have to look at 2040, well within the life of a 30-year mortgage. Based on what we’ve learned about global warming, we really need to ask ourselves these questions about the location of the homes that will help people live in California. “

Stern currently has two bills on this subject in the Legislature. SB-63 would fund fire prevention efforts in existing communities and train local organizations in state standards for home improvement, known as “hardening. ” SB-55, on the other hand, would do something that is practically sacrilegious in the land of the $ 20 million megamansions built to spec: it would bar new development on lands most prone to state fires. Stern – an environmental lawyer and the first millennial elected to the state legislature – openly acknowledges that passing these bills will be politically difficult. But putting them into practice could be even more difficult, as it will require financial sacrifices and local cooperation from people who in many cases have opted for a more, shall we say, isolationist lifestyle. “There is some truth in this border mentality that populated these rural outskirts of our reluctant metropolis – they started with people who said, ‘I am alone,’” he says. “But if you live in the middle of the fire zone, it comes at a cost, and my great concern – which is not always shared by the people I represent – is that there is an injustice in allowing this to happen. land use to continue. In other words, when the homes of his constituents burn down in Calabasas, the people of Compton always end up paying the costs of fighting fires and higher insurance rates.

What Stern’s bills would begin to do is curb the state’s poor growth trends that have put millions of people – including, increasingly, firefighters and first responders – in danger. The Palisades fire, for example, is spreading through the chaparral that last burned down 50 years ago, around the time the developers started leveling the nearby hills for the Palisades Highlands neighborhood ( amid protests from environmentalists who argued that a new development would overwhelm local fire resources). The first homes were sold here in 1975, carved out of the Santa Monica Mountains into a dozen aspiringly named gated communities like Enclave and Summit, which are technically located in the city of Los Angeles – but about two miles of wilderness. . “These houses were built when not only did we not fully understand the risk – the risk was actually lower then,” says Wara. “Now the risk is higher and the rules should change.” Yet even as the city has become well aware of the increased risk of fire, houses have continued to be built higher and higher on this hill – there is a vacant 1.2 acre lot for sale, for example, just one block from the Palisades. The fire has begun – a pattern repeating itself across the state; over the past 40 years, people living in high-risk areas has doubled. Homeowners also oppose even modest suggestions for defusing fires, such as remove combustible landscaping. To complicate this dialogue, there is a societal desire to target the causes rather than prevention, which, with the fire at the Palissades, has turned into a dangerous crowdsourcing vigilance effort to apprehend an arson suspect. Citizen CEO Andrew Frame, who started the manhunt with a bounty of $ 30,000 to “get this guy,»Owns a house in the nearby town of Bel-Air, which is prone to fires. This insistence on finding someone to blame for the fires – virtually all of which are caused by humans, even if not deliberately started – is a distraction. “Whether it’s arson, accidental or natural, whatever that may mean, ignition is less of a problem than the fact that you live in a burning ecosystem,” says Char Miller, professor of environmental scan at Pomona College. “If no one lives there and an arsonist has been there, you would treat fire differently. The problem is, people have moved into flammable places. “

And that cold fact, Stern says, is the thing many of the state’s wealthiest and most powerful landowners refuse to hear. “I have to say no to Malibu,” Stern said. “No, you can’t build your new mansion.“But if there’s anyone who can say it, it’s someone like him – who’s been there, who’s lost sleep and potentially a family member to the ever-present threat of fire; who knows what it’s like to live with the task of staying one step ahead of the flames.

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