Opinion: Primary factor creating wildfire risk is land use

(Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP) (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Until counties stop building houses in high-risk areas, threat of wildfires will continue to increase

This op-ed was originally published in the Mercury News.  Click this link for the original online article.

As still more wildfires hit California this fall, we remain in denial about the primary cause of our disastrous wildfire risks.

Climate change contributes to wildfire now and will grow even further in importance, but it is not currently the primary risk factor and not subject to denial here in climate-conscious California. Similarly, there’s no denial of the need for certain helpful actions, using different building materials and setting prescribed fires to burn out fuel loads before they get out of control. These acknowledged issues also are not the primary drivers of wildfire risks, although they dominate the discussion and potential actions by government agencies.

The primary factor creating wildfire risk is land use, specifically the extent to which we scatter residential development in wildland areas, like lighter fluid on a bundle of wood. California county and city governments do not acknowledge this fact in their own “mini-constitutions,” their General Plans. Until they do – and then take action to do something about it – wildfire history will continue to tragically repeat itself.

Research has made clear that the greatest risk of losing a home to fire comes from land use decisions that disperse development across the Wildand-Urban Interface, the so-called “WUI”.  You can map this risk rising and falling like a hill on a graph, where risk is low at very low density development in the WUI, rises high in the middle level of density, and then drops low again with increased density approaching suburban lots. Research from Alexandra Syphard of the Conservation Biology Institute, and by many others, has demonstrated the problem.

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