California prepares for the next burn

Officials -- and homeowners -- start to accept the inevitability of wildfire

  • Source: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
 

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA

When Steve Quarles drives the narrow roads that wind through the steep wooded hills above Oakland and Berkeley, he doesn't get distracted by the million-dollar views of San Francisco Bay. He's too busy looking at the landscape's finer points. Take the roof of that elegant Mediterranean-style palazzo.

"Here's a not-so-good example," says Quarles, a soft-spoken building-materials specialist who works for the University of California's Extension Service. "That clay barrel-tile roof doesn't have any bird stops."

A small cement plug under a half-round roof tile might seem like an architectural trifle, but to Quarles its absence represents a fire danger -- and, since this is an area that has burned several times, it's important. If starlings or house sparrows can get under tiles, they'll build nests there. And when a wildfire comes -- like the devastating Tunnel Fire, which roared through here in 1991 -- strong winds can blow embers into those nests, starting spot fires that can consume an entire house, even a neighborhood.

But as Quarles drives, he sees good news, too: stucco siding; roof tiles made of a cement-like material; vents screened to keep out embers; windows made of double-pane, tempered glass. All these features are mandated under California's tough new building code. Collectively, they're likely to result in fewer losses the next time fire sweeps through.

These home-construction details show that the Golden State is finally coming to accept fire as a fact of life. Instead of hoping that all wildfires will be put out, fire officials, community leaders and even homeowners are coming to embrace the old wildland firefighters' maxim: "It's not if, but when." Increasing numbers of Californians realize that it's not necessarily air tankers and hotshot crews that will save them when fire comes; it's their own actions.

"You personally need to take more ownership of preparing for disaster," says Quarles. Although there's still some resistance from homeowners, "the message is slowly getting out."

The Tunnel Fire claimed 25 lives, destroyed thousands of houses, and caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages. But it also inspired the long, slow push for a better statewide building code, which was instituted across fire-prone parts of the state last year. And it paved the way for a new and sometimes controversial state program to accurately map areas most at risk from such fires.

Much of California was mapped for wildland fire hazard beginning in the 1980s, but improved technologies have recently enabled experts from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, to do a much better job. Using a computer model developed over the last few years, they can integrate the variables that affect how fire spreads in wildlands -- landscape features such as slope and vegetation -- with data about development patterns and how houses tend to burn.

"Fires don't spread the same way in urbanized areas," says David Sapsis, Cal Fire's chief fire modeler. "This model does a significantly better job of highlighting hazards to areas with structures." In particular, it addresses a well-known fact about wildland-urban interface fires: Most houses don't burn down because they're engulfed by a wall of flames. Rather, they burn because windborne embers cause spot fires that, in the absence of firefighting, spread rapidly.

"Embers get into attics through unscreened vents or into the crawl space, or they get into a woodpile stacked against the house or into a pile of leaves under the deck," says Max Moritz, a fire ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley who helped Sapsis develop the new model.

The model's architects responded by designating "Very High Hazard Zones" around fire-prone wildlands. Drawn in an alarming scarlet, these buffer areas represent the average distance embers can travel from a wildfire. Depending on their municipality's rules, homeowners in Very High zones may have to conform to stricter building codes and seller-disclosure requirements than their neighbors in High or Moderate fire-hazard areas.

Last spring, Cal Fire asked the state's municipalities to provide feedback to the draft maps posted on its Web site. Some local officials pointed out places where the fire hazard had been reduced -- where woodlands had given way to baseball fields or subdivisions, or where groves of highly flammable eucalyptus had been removed. Others simply wanted the VH designations removed because they didn't want any red zones in their towns. And some fire chiefs wanted more local areas designated as VH zones, in order to call attention to what they see as severe fire danger.

Once a map is finally agreed on, it won't take effect until it's officially adopted by local ordinance, along with the accompanying building codes and disclosure requirements. But it also needs to be embraced by the local community as an awareness-raising tool. That's happened in most of California, but it has not been an easy sell everywhere.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...