Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are now in the post mortem phase of the North Bay fire storms, asking what could’ve been done to avoid the tragedy and what can be done in the future to prevent similar conflagrations. Discussions largely have focused on tighter zoning and fire ordinances. Those are appropriate areas to focus on, say many wildfire experts, but municipalities and counties inevitably face pressures that make effective wildfire risk reduction difficult.
“As things stand, cities and municipal or regional agencies — like the East Bay Regional Park District or the East Bay Municipal Utility District — are responsible for dealing with fuel buildup and other potential fire safety issues,” says Joe McBride, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of landscape architecture and environmental planning. “Cities particularly are supposed to do annual inspections, notify people if there’s a problem, and then take enforcement actions, including hiring contractors to do clean-up work and billing the homeowner. But people get resentful when local authorities try to vigorously enforce safety regulations. They bring their own pressures to bear, and then necessary things simply aren’t done.”
Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management at Cal, also believes city officials are often unable or unwilling to enforce strict fire ordinance options. The incentive for city council members and county supervisors is to encourage development and expand tax bases, Stephens says. As a result, homes are often built in wild land “interface” areas with extreme fire risk, such as the scorched Fountaingrove complex in Santa Rosa, and fire safety measures are either minimized or ignored altogether.
As Santa Rosa newspaper columnist and Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron has written, the Tubbs Fire that ravaged Santa Rosa could’ve been predicted; in 1964, another wildfire followed almost the exact same path. But that earlier fire burned mostly forest and agricultural land. Fountaingrove’s pricey developments weren’t put in until the 1990s, rammed through by local officials anxious for the tax revenues, and in apparent violation of an ordinance that proscribed development on ridge tops overlooking the Santa Rosa Valley.
Along with mushrooming development, ongoing climate change is resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons, affecting wildfire behavior in unexpected and catastrophic ways. That was evident in the Santa Rosa fires with the destruction of Coffey Park, a large tract of middle-class homes in western Santa Rosa far from any forested areas.
“Coffey Park was a huge surprise for me,” says Stephens. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I had never expected to see anything like it. But you had this terrible confluence of events. Incredibly powerful, dry winds swept down eastward-facing canyons, and threw burning embers west clear across the Highway 101 corridor into Coffey Park, where they ignited dry leaves and other fuels. Now that we know these kinds of scenarios can play out, we need to prepare for them.”
How? McBride believes that it would be wise to divest cities of some of their regulatory authority and place it with the state. State agencies, he observes, are largely immune to both the blandishments and intimidation of local development bigwigs and are motivated by larger issues than municipal and county tax bases. He points to the California Coastal Commission as a promising template. Prior to the Coastal Commission’s formation in 1972, development pressures along the state’s incomparably beautiful coastline were increasing dramatically. It seemed certain that California’s future would include a solid wall of strip malls and gimcrack bungalow developments from Crescent City to San Diego.
“Before the Coastal Commission was authorized, each coastal city planned for its own best interests in terms of zoning, and those interests weren’t necessarily aligned with coastal preservation or access,” says McBride. “Once the commission started overseeing things, though, we got much better zoning and oversight of the coast. Most of the coast is now preserved. We avoided the ‘Miamification’ of California that otherwise would’ve been inevitable. A similar agency for wildfire regulations and enforcement – essentially a California Fire Commission – might make similar progress in community fire protection in terms of zoning and enforcing clean-up and defensible space requirements.”
Stephens agrees with McBride that state authority is likely to be more effective than local agencies in establishing and enforcing effective fire regulations, and suggests that the University of California could also play a role.
“We have to educate as well as enforce, and in fact, education and cooperation at the community level may be the best way to accomplish fire safety goals,” Stephens says. “One of the tragic things about the Santa Rosa fires is that most of the fatalities were older people: 60 and older. People in neighborhoods in fire-vulnerable areas should meet regularly to identify older neighbors who may need help in evacuating, identify escape routes for different scenarios, and discuss risk reduction measures they could take.”
As far as Cal goes, continues Stephens, “UC Cooperative Extension [under the university’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources] maintains [agricultural and conservation] programs in every California county, so we already have a network of educators and communicators. We could coordinate with state agencies and the governor to create and implement wildfire safety and response programs that could be very effective. And because the basic structure is already in place, it wouldn’t be very expensive.”
Both Stephens and McBride think the presence of certain types of ornamental trees should be minimized. Grasslands and native oak savannas burn readily, says McBride, but at a low intensity; grass fires can usually be countered relatively easily by firefighters. But some exotic trees, particularly eucalyptus and Monterey pine, are impregnated with oils and resins that burn explosively, often producing flame lengths of 200 feet or more and creating “spot” fires miles from primary blazes, making effective firefighting impossible.
“We really need to look at changing the landscape [in suburban and urban areas],” McBride says, “and that includes selective removal of eucalyptus and other problematic trees in the intemix zone.” *
Cal Fire defines the intermix zone as “areas where homes are interspersed among the wildlands.”
McBride says some communities are approaching fire risk in a progressive and effective way, and they should be emulated.
“Landscaping at Sea Ranch [on the Sonoma Coast] largely consists of native grassland and prairie, and that provides a lot of security for the homes,” says McBride. “They also plow firebreaks throughout the development every year. They do have stands of native bishop pine, which burns with high intensity, but they prune and thin them to break up the fuel ladders, and that minimizes fire risk.”
The homes at Sea Ranch are modeled on the old barns of the ranchers who originally settled the Sonoma Coast, another factor that reduces fire risk, observes McBride.
“They don’t have eves or roof overhangs, which is a very wise design feature in wildfire-prone areas,” says McBride. “Overhangs trap burning cinders driven by the wind, and encourage fires either on roofs and walls or in attics.”
Indeed, says McBride, modern architects and urban planners can learn about a lot about minimizing fire risk by studying some of the historic structures from California’s past.
“Windows are a big entry point for heat,” says McBride. “In fact, heat from wildfires can transfer directly through windows and ignite walls opposite the windows without the glass breaking. When you go through the old Gold Rush towns in the Sierra, you see these stone buildings with big iron shutters that could be closed over the windows. That was a fire prevention strategy, and it was very effective. We don’t need to make shutters from heavy iron sheets, of course, but we could certainly design shutters from modern materials for the large plate glass windows that are so popular in modern homes. The [Forty-Niners] really understood the risks of wildfires, and they designed their buildings with fires in mind. We need to do the same thing.”
* This quote has been corrected from an earlier version of the story, which mistakenly suggested that Professor McBride supports “banning” eucalyptus trees from urban and suburban areas.