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Adapting Local Policy in Response to Wildfire Risk

Do you remember a time when you’d look forward to fall here in Wine Country? I do. The turning of the vineyards and oaks. The scattering of acorns across your favorite local hiking trail. Clear skies and warm days followed by crisp evenings. The smell of the changing season in the breeze.

For many of us, feelings about fall began to change when, in September 2015, the Valley Fire ripped through neighboring Lake County. It would become the sixth most destructive wildfire in California history. The fall of 2016 proved largely uneventful in our area, securing the belief that, while wildfires can threaten communities, they largely occur “over there.” We told ourselves that the Valley Fire was, perhaps, an anomaly.

Queue fall of 2017. The wind-fueled Tubbs, Nuns, Pocket and Atlas fires roared through Napa, Sonoma and Lake Counties in October in the middle of a Sunday night. Evacuations were a mix of horror, chaos and heroism, hindered by darkness, power outages and the pace of the firestorm. Portions of the counties were devastated with entire subdivisions burned to the ground. Coffey Park, separated from what most consider to be fire country by portions of Santa Rosa and Highway 101, was almost entirely destroyed. These fires fundamentally changed Sonoma County residents’ perceptions of wildfire risk. What had once been thought to be a risk of rural living had now come to city life.

2018 brought us the Ranch Fire in Mendocino and Lake counties (the Mendocino Complex, 459,123 acres), that at the time was the largest wildfire in California history. 2019 offered up the October Kincade Fire (77,758 acres), resulting in the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people in Sonoma County. By the end of the 2019 fire season, just about everyone in Sonoma County had either been directly threatened or impacted by fires, or knew people who had. Our PTSD was only increasing.

And then came 2020.

Across California, wildfire size is increasing and so is wildfire damage to structures. 2020 has the dubious distinction of five of the largest California wildfires ever recorded, as shown below. Of the top ten largest wildfires recorded in California, only one occurred prior to 2010 - the 2003 Cedar Fire. Of the top 20, only three occurred prior to 2000 [1]. In August, Sonoma County experienced the Walbridge Fire, a portion of the fourth largest fire in California history, the LNU Complex.

Not only is the size of fires increasing in 2020, but so is the damage they cause. 2020 includes five of the 20 most destructive California wildfires on record (shown below). Of those 20 most destructive fires recorded, 15 have occurred since 2015 [2]. Both the Glass Fire and the LNU Complex have impacted Sonoma County, destroying homes, displacing people and driving home the reality that wildfire has become a normal part of fall in this region.

Based on CalFire records, since 2015, Sonoma County has been impacted by five of the top 20 most destructive wildfires in the state. Those include: the 2017 Tubbs Fire (2nd most destructive on record); the 2015 Valley Fire (6th most destructive); the 2020 Glass Fire (10th most destructive); the 2020 LNU Complex (11th most destructive); and, the 2017 Nuns Fire (13th most destructive).

As of the end of September 2020, wildfires have consumed 4,040,935 acres across the state, as shown below, and the fire season is not over. For comparison, the 2018 fire season, at less than half of 2020, has now been bumped to a distant second place.

Acres Burned by Wildfire in California, 2015-2020


Our collective trauma and diminished enthusiasm for fall in the Wine Country is well founded. Whatever your perspective is on the role and causes of climate change, it’s hard to argue against the fact that wildfire in Sonoma County is an increasingly frequent and severe event. But what can we do about it?

In most cases, our response to wildfires is reactive more than proactive. The same is true of the rebuilding process. It’s difficult to attempt to implement significant regulatory change when your life or community is in ashes. Since 2017, Brelje & Race has worked on several fire recovery projects in Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino Counties to replace damaged infrastructure associated with recent wildfire to facilitate rebuilding communities. We’re providing engineering design and construction management services for the Cobb Area Water District’s Summit Area Improvements project in order to restore water service damaged and destroyed during the Valley Fire. Recently we completed engineering design and construction management of a new water treatment facility and headquarters building for the Callayomi County Water District in Middletown after their facilities burned in 2015. We also designed and managed the construction of a wastewater collection system in the destroyed community of Anderson Springs to allow rebuilding after lots were determined to not meet modern septic system codes. And in Redwood Valley, we’re working with FEMA to implement water distribution system improvements to provide for improved fire protection and facilitate rebuilding burned homes that now require residential fire sprinkler systems. Over the last five years we’ve also provided land surveying and engineering design services for over 50 homesite rebuilding projects throughout the region.

While I am proud to have been involved in these projects and, in my own way, assist rebuilding destroyed communities, I am eager for opportunities to see rebuilding done in a more forward thinking and resilient way, hopefully reducing the need to rebuild in the future. There are a couple of adaptive policy changes that could result in better wildfire resilience without placing additional burdens on first responders.

The first of these includes reexamining our building codes. While building codes currently acknowledge wildfire risks, they don’t function particularly well to substantially reduce those risks, especially under recent fire conditions. Current building codes in fire danger areas require the use of fire resistant building materials, but they could do much more to popularize nontraditional building techniques that would greatly reduce the risk of significant property damage and deaths. Such measures as non-vented roofs and slab on grade construction prevent embers from having any chance of getting into a structure’s attic or crawlspace. The addition of fire resistant shutters can help keep embers out of windows. In a blaze, homes with concrete walls and specially-insulated metal roofing fare better than stick built homes with fire resistant roof materials.

Zoning codes could be updated to better define fire risk areas. Zoning codes could also better incorporate protection of defensible open space buffer areas between wildland-urban interfaces. These efforts should focus first and foremost on the wildland-urban interface as the zone of highest risk. As we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, these code changes may ultimately allow us to improve safety more broadly. In addition, there are conflicts between directives for tree preservation and vegetation management that need to be resolved.

Probably obvious to most readers, these measures would come with increased building costs as well as the potential for reduced profit for developers. However, those costs should be weighed against the benefit of longer lived structures as well as the potential costs of rebuilding destroyed traditional stick built homes. Also in the equation is homeowners insurance, as many homeowners find their fire insurance is becoming cost prohibitive due to ongoing wildfire-associated losses.

Electricity transmission has also been shown to be problematic from a fire ignition perspective. Beside the risks of wildfires, living with continuing planned power outages during red flag warnings is a crude mitigation strategy, at best, and introduces numerous new problems, some even life threatening to those dependent on electrical devices for health reasons. We must continue to examine micro grids and residential-scale backup power systems as a way to not only adapt to increasing wildfire threats, but also add resiliency to our electric grid.

After the destruction of each wildfire of the last five years, homes and businesses are simply rebuilt to comply with existing codes (insurance may not be sufficient to pay for more stringent measures). The longer we wait to make meaningful changes to our building codes and zoning ordinances, the more is rebuilt in non-adaptive ways, and the more new development is built in high or moderate fire danger areas.

Finally, the wildfires have highlighted a continuing need for infrastructure improvements. Our water systems need to be resilient not only to provide water for existing uses and fire suppression but also to remain functional after the fire and cleanup efforts. In many of our rural areas, existing septic systems do not meet current regulations and if destroyed could not be rebuilt without investment in a modern sanitary sewer or expensive engineered septic treatment systems. Roadway networks should function for current every day traffic loads as well as allowing for adequate emergency evacuation. Brelje & Race has served on a number of local fire resiliency projects, including upgrading back-up power generation for the City of Santa Rosa’s water system, as well as additional distribution mains to improve water flow for fire fighters. While local governments are starting to respond, limited resources are slowing their response. State and federal investment in our infrastructure now will speed up critical adaptation work and will benefit our daily lives and environment for decades to come. And it will allow us to respond better during disasters and when rebuilding in their aftermath. Through smart public investment and sensible policy updates we can once again make fall in Wine Country a time to savor.

Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash

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