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for people who care about the West

California prepares for the next burn

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



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.

Town officials in Portola Valley, a leafy and affluent enclave on the edge of Silicon Valley, have refused to accept the Cal Fire map. They're worried about the potential financial implications of the "redlining."

"A lot of the community members feel (a VH designation) would be used against them to raise rates or cancel insurance," says Richard Crevelt, president of the Highlands Homeowners Association, which represents residents of a red-zoned neighborhood. There's no evidence that this has happened, Crevelt says, but that doesn't stop the speculation.

For his part, Sapsis says it would be a "gross misuse" of the mapping process for an insurer to deny coverage or increase premiums based on a Cal Fire map. The maps don't reflect on-the-ground variables, such as the type of construction materials used or how well the brush has been thinned. But Pete Moraga of the Insurance Information Network of California, an industry group, acknowledges the possibility that some insurers will consider Cal Fire's maps as they decide how, or whether, to underwrite a particular piece of property. "Those people who aren't in the high fire areas shouldn't be subsidizing those in the high-risk areas," he says. "If you choose to live in a higher-risk area, you should be prepared to pay higher rates."

Homeowners resent another legal implication of VH listing. Under California law, owners selling property in VH areas are required to disclose that designation to buyers. Residents worry that their sale prices might decline as a result -- especially if similar neighborhoods nearby have a fire hazard that's only listed as High.

One 2006 study examined the effects of the disclosure requirement, which has been on the books since 1998. Surprisingly, it found that average prices for homes in VH areas were in fact 3 percent higher than prices for comparable homes outside those areas. If the high-hazard homes were within a few miles of a recent fire, though, their prices were on average 5 percent lower.

Admittedly, that study was completed before last year's real estate meltdown, and before the recent high-profile California fires that have scorched neighborhoods from Lake Tahoe to Santa Barbara. But it does suggest that the benefits of living in highly hazardous areas, such as sweeping views, proximity to undeveloped areas, or thick surrounding vegetation, often outweigh the hazards -- until a fire strikes. "Many of these places are beautiful," says Moraga, "but it's a cruel beauty."

Cal Fire lacks the legal power to force municipalities to approve its maps, and it's likely that Portola Valley will refuse to do so. But in May, the town council revised its building code standards to be even tougher than the new statewide ones. The new code will affect the whole town, not just the neighborhood Cal Fire considers a VH zone.

Town planner Leslie Lambert thinks that's fair, and she hopes it will also persuade residents to deal with fire-susceptible yards. "Some properties are pretty overgrown," she says. "Everybody's pretty conscious about fire, but it really is time we do more."

Perhaps the ultimate sign of the changing attitude toward wildfire is the increasing popularity of the "stay and defend" philosophy -- the idea that well-prepared residents ought to defend their own roofs, decks and lawns in a wildfire.

It's a philosophy that has gained wide currency in Australia, although it came under serious criticism after conflagrations killed more than 200 people there last February. The idea, essentially, is that residents of fire-prone neighborhoods need not get in firefighters' way. Rather, they can be trained in basic firefighting, provided with hoses, radios and fire-resistant clothing, and prepared for the intense psychological commitment of staying home while the trees in the yard burst into flame.

The full name of the Australian policy is "Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early," notes Moritz, and he emphasizes the "prepare" part. The key, he says, is making a property as fire-safe as possible, and then deciding early whether to stay or go.

The idea hasn't caught on here, at least not officially. In February, fire chiefs in San Diego County held a press conference to denounce it. They fear, with justification, that fire-threatened residents will stay home, then panic at the last minute and try to flee. That's how most of the Tunnel Fire victims died.

But the fire chiefs may be behind the curve on this. The example of Richard Martin is a case in point. A retired professor, he built a fireproof bunker at his house in Santa Barbara's Mission Canyon. He cleared vegetation and installed sprinklers on the roof. When fire raced through the canyon this May, he and his wife ignored police orders to leave. They hunkered down, emerging occasionally to hose down hot spots. And their house survived. Dozens of others nearby did not. When the neighbors rebuild, they're likely to take note.

"People are trying this already," notes Moritz. "The authorities hate it, but they need to know that some people are going to try this."

This article was supported by a Western Enterprise Reporting Fellowship from Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West.

Peter Friederici teaches journalism at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.