Burning Question: Can California Prevent the Next Wildfire?

By Glen Martin

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.

Ongoing climate change is affecting wildfire behavior in unexpected and catastrophic ways. That was evident in the Santa Rosa fires.

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.

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You are mistaken about the trees. There is no proof of eucalyptus or monterey pine having unusually high flammability. The buildings are much more explosive and flammable than any tree. Proof is visible in the recent horrific Marin fires. The tales of flammability were fabricated at an IPC symposium in 2004 in order to demonize the “non-natives”. We have the minutes from that symposium. Please let me know if you would like to see the pdf file. Of course what is native is in continual flux, so how to say what was where when is like herding cats. As to flammability - best to rely on the latest discoveries. Not easy to light wet wood on fire. And living trees are wet wood.
I live in a high wildfire risk area in Butte County. I have seen live native trees burn before my eyes. ALL vegetation burns, but some of the invasive non native plant species, such as Scotch broom, add tremendously to the fuel load. Much of the forested lands have unnaturally dense growth, which is unhealthy. Livestock grazing and responsible logging help mitigate wildfire danger better than worrying about what species of trees are planted.
When we bought land back in the ’80’s Butte County was more than happy to take our money for permits to put up a home, despite the fact that the roads and infrastructure were, and still are, totally inadequate. The county still does this, despite experiencing massive fires over the last 25 years. There is better code enforcement for busting marijuanna grows than the defensible space that is also mandated by law.
Monterey Pine is a native tree - not an exotic tree as stated in the article.
Many eucalyptus burned in the Oakland/Berkeley fire in 1991. But they did not “creat[e] ‘spot’ fires miles from primary blazes.” In fact the entire fire area was only three miles long. No one documented embers from eucalyptus causing any spot fires in that wind driven event. (Burning wooden shingles from houses did land downwind.) The recent North Bay fires involved large tracts of native trees and brush that burned furiously, not eucalyptus. If the “spot fires from eucalyptus embers” story wasn’t realized in the 1991 fire, nor in the recent North Bay fires, how does this myth persist so tenaciously? It seems that the demonizing of eucalyptus is driven solely by the (irrelevant) fact that they are not native to California.
I was misquoted in Glen Martin’s article posted on October 30, 2017 as having said: ““We really need to look at changing the landscape [in suburban and urban areas],” McBride says, “and that includes banning eucalyptus and other problematic trees as much as possible.” It is a misquote of a statement I made concerning the removal of eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees at some sites within the intermix zone. I did not say nor mean to suggest that the eucalyptus trees should be banned.
This recent article has misquoted Joe McBride as being supportive of this anti-tree agenda. He was misquoted by the author, Glen Martin. Joe has posted a comment on the article stating that he was misquoted. I would like to request a retraction of the article by the Cal Alumni magazine. Glen Martin is again promoting his own agenda and misquoting his sources.
It seems that Mr. Martin’s article is intended more as a propaganda piece than as a scholarly assessment of the situation. To misquote one of the key sources used in the article is quite problematic, and should be reason enough for this article to be withdrawn and an apology provided. Beyond this, the article seems to ignore the fact that bay trees, chaparral, grasses and even oaks are a far greater fire risk than eucs or pines. Mr. Martin should probably look at the research of his fellows at UC, research that demonstrated that the ferocity of the recent Napa fires was fueled largely by exactly the species that Mr. Martin thinks we should have more of. Not one word about Sudden Oak Death and how this is causing oaks to become a serious fire hazard, as was demonstrated in Napa. The recent Napa fires, the worst in the history of the State, were fueled almost entirely by natives. No eucs or pines were implicated. No mention of the fact that the courts have consistently ruled against UC in its attempt to clearcut the Berkeley “hill campus”. No mention of the fact that at this moment FEMA, East Bay Regional Park District, and Hills Conservation Network are united against UC’s latest lawsuit in its ongoing land clearing efforts. No mention of the fact that progress is addressing the real risk factors is currently under way, but would be jeopardized if UC were to prevail in its FEMA lawsuit. Maybe the suggestion that vegetation management for fire risk mitigation be taken over by a regional authority is nothing more than an attempt to do an end run around the local agencies and courts because the outcome has not been what Mr. Martin and his associates wanted? It’s time that the Alumni Magazine stopped being used as a propaganda tool. As a Cal alumnus I can say that we deserve better than this.
I have taken courses from Joe McBride at Cal, walked in parks in SF and Berkeley with his classes, attended his lecture at the Commonwealth Club, read his studies and publications, etc. I was therefore flabbergasted by Glen Martin’s article in which Joe is quoted. I have never heard Joe say anything remotely resembling the words Mr. Martin has put in his mouth. Having read several of Mr. Martin’s hit pieces in the service of UC’s plans to clear cut all non-native trees from UC properties, I wasn’t entirely surprised. Mr. Martin is not a journalist. He is an activist and that has been apparent going all the way back to his days at the Chronicle. I have complained before about Mr. Martin’s counterfactual articles published by the Cal Alumni Magazine and have apparently been ignored. The Alumni Magazine continues to employ Mr. Martin to write inaccurate articles. This choice reflects badly on the Alumni Magazine as well as on UC. UC taught us to be critical thinkers and to speak up when we witness injustice. As Cal alumna, I am just doing my duty to my alma mater. Please remove this article from your website.
The quote in question has been corrected after conferring with Prof. McBride. We apologize for the error.
Regarding Monterey pines, they are indeed native to California but have a very limited natural range and are properly considered ‘exotic’ in the context of this article.
To Pat Joseph, THAT is a matter of opinion. There is fossil evidence that Monterey pines lived here in the San Francisco Bay Area several times in the pre-settlement past. The definition of “native” is arbitrary. Nativists have selected a very narrow range of time, immediately prior to the arrival of Europeans, at the end of the 18th century. Many people don’t agree with that definition, including the person who found the fossil evidence and published her findings in the journal of the California Native Plant Society. She asked in that publication that Monterey pine be allowed to live where it lived in the past. Furthermore, Monterey pines are endangered in their small “native” range in Monterey County. If nativists are successful in eradicating it everywhere else (which seems unlikely, although they are surely trying their best to do so), the Monterey pine will be extinct.
That’s interesting. You know the history of Monterey pine here and elsewhere, but you still consider it non-native here. Again, many people would not agree with you; most recently, Chris Thomas, author of “Inheritors of the Earth,” who uses Monterey pine as an example of a plant that is endangered in the range deemed “native” by nativists that is being eradicated.
Does Glenn Martin set the tone for the discrimination towards healthy trees by UC? Is this the opinion of the UC organization, the UC Alumni, or just G. Martin? Extremely disappointing to see such a worthy educational entity associated with sort of blind unquestioning discrimination against organisms that are so beneficial to human life.
Thank you for this article. It highlighted an issue that has been ignored too long - the responsibility of local planning agencies to create fire safe communities. And thanks to Stephens and McBride for focusing on what really matters - reducing the flammability of homes and developing fire response plans to protect the most vulnerable citizens. McBride’s suggestion of using the Coastal Commission model to approach development withing firesheds is brilliant. The Tubbs Fire was so destructive because land planners have failed us, with firefighters left holding the bag. Planning agencies need to be the first line of defense. Local leaders need to restrict development in fire prone areas, require strict fire codes for new developments throughout California, enforce proper defensible spaces regulations, and demand that older communities retrofit homes within ten years to increase their chances of surviving an ember storm. Such policies would cost significantly less than pretending we can stop wildfires in one of the world’s most fire-prone environments.

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