California's Housing Policies May Cause Wildfires Losses to Get Worse

On October 2, environmental engineers and fire safety professionals announced that California's wildfire destruction could be directly related to the state's housing policies. If the state does not make some big changes, the losses from future fires could get a lot worse. Read on to learn about how housing developments and laws related to fireproofing homes could be affecting how many homes are lost in the state's wildfires.

Wildfires Fail to Surprise Californians

This year's wildfires in California have been worse than any other year in history. However, nobody was surprised about this. The Glass Fire is one of the state's largest. People trying to evacuate in the middle of the night this week had to hustle out of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium because of the rapidly moving fire. People had to hurry out of the designated shelter area at 2:48 am because of how fast the fire was moving toward their location. Dozens of people have died in this year's fires, and more are likely to die. The fires aren't yet under control.

Decades of Lax Fire Prevention

For more than 100 years, Californians suppressed the natural wildfires. These fires are usually ignited by lightning strikes. Nature depends on these occasional wildfires to renew forests. Some trees seeds are only able to sprout if their husks are burned in a fire. The fire suppression efforts have included lax efforts for clearing brush and removing combustible materials. The state's utility providers have also been lax about clearing tree branches from power lines. Sparks from a power line could set a tree branch on fire, and the strong Santa Ana winds could easily spread those flames.

Role of the Climate Crisis

Climate change has significantly altered rainfall in the state of California. Areas that used to get plentiful rainfall now only get sporadic rain in insignificant amounts to prevent drought. The persistent drought conditions have caused a lot of vegetation to dry out. That dead vegetation becomes tinder for the next lighting strike, campfire or spark from a utility line. Climate change has also increased average temperatures. Summers are hotter, winters are milder and low temperatures are higher than ever. Snowfall has decreased, too. Wind patterns have also changed as a result of climate change. There never used to be a fire season, but now fire season lasts for about four months of the year.

Housing Developments Also Play a Role

Suburban sprawl is a big deal in California. There are now homes in places where people never used to live. Large subdivisions are in places where wildfires used to be able to burn without causing any material damage or risk to life. The suburban sprawl is putting people and property at risk. These areas are called the wild urban interface.

Lawmakers' Efforts Stymied

Californian lawmakers passed a bill to limit how much suburban sprawl can occur in California. However, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed that bill on September 30. The bill was written by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who is a Democrat from Santa Barbara. She worked on the California Senate Housing Committee. Debates on the bill began back in April 2019. Developers in the state called it a housing killer.

What the Developers Say

The housing developers in California explain that they don't want any more restrictions on where to build. They already have to deal with restrictions related to wetlands, state forests, national forests, seismic risks and more. The California State Fire Marshal disagrees with the vetoing of the bill, stating that more protections are needed for California's residents. When the state's firefighters have to go out in the dangerous fires and protect the houses that are at risk of burning, that puts the lives of the firefighters at risk.

What Can Be Done to Reduce Housing Losses from Wildfires

Michael Wara, who is the director of the program on Climate and Energy Policy at Stanford University, said it would be a shame to just sit back and do nothing. Lives and property are at risk. He said it was encouraging that Governor Newsom did sign a law around emergency protection for response and preparedness efforts. However, he says that it's not enough. He also added that more than 95% of California's wildfires in the past 10 years were started by people. His research found that 25% of the risk of wildfires is directly related to climate change. Californians and Americans will have to make tough decisions to make a difference.

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