By Lennie Roberts
The recent enormous losses of homes and lives due to devastating wildfires in California have highlighted a fundamental flaw in the state’s traditional approach to wildfire, which in the past has focused on vegetation rather than what should be our greatest priority – our homes and people’s lives.
While wildfire in our Mediterranean climate is inevitable, destruction of our communities is not. To reduce or stop the destruction of homes, we need to reduce their vulnerability to ignition. Most structures ignite during a major wildfire because of flying embers, also called firebrands, that can land as much as a mile or more in advance of a wind-driven wildfire. This is why fuel breaks, twelve-lane highways, and even large bodies of water often fail to protect homes during wind-driven extreme wildfire events.
To reduce the destruction of our communities by wildfires, California should adopt two fundamental new strategies: (1) reduce the flammability of existing structures, and (2) prevent new homes from being built in very high fire hazard severity zones.
California’s current focus on forests and dead trees is especially misguided, according to experts cited in a recent letter to the Governor from several environmental groups, because the vast majority of lives and homes lost to wildfire in California had little to do with vegetation in forests. And while it is reasonable to remove hazardous trees immediately adjacent to roads and homes and to thin forests immediately around communities, thinning of forests located away from communities does nothing to protect houses and lives, while often damaging forest ecosystems.
We need to look at the problem from every vulnerable house outward, rather than from the adjacent wildland in. Some communities have already taken the lead in adopting measures to require retrofitting homes with proven safety features that reduce flammability, including ember-resistant vents, fire-resistant roofing and siding, and exterior sprinklers. Removing flammable shrubs and small trees that act as “ladder fuels” as part of vegetation management within 100 – 300 feet of homes in forested lands can also be an effective method of reducing wildfire risk. Removing all dead leaves, twigs, grass, woodpiles, and any other highly flammable material from roofs, gutters, and within five feet of a home is a simple, inexpensive, and effective fire prevention action a homeowner can take.
The timber industry continues to advocate for removal of large trees (24” diameter and larger) in California’s forests in order to help landowners pay for fuel reduction efforts. This is both unwise and fundamentally counterproductive, as larger, more mature trees actually maintain shady, cooler conditions on the forest floor that reduce fire hazards.
Committee for Green Foothills will continue to oppose these counterproductive proposals, and will support funding to assist homeowners in retrofitting their homes to reduce their vulnerability to fire. Most importantly, state and local decision makers need to adopt new measures to prevent building new homes in known high risk fire vulnerable areas.