California prepares for the next burn

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

  • Source: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection


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.

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