Building fire-safe communities helps ensure only nature will need to recover after wildfires.

A Vision of Fire-Safe Communities in Sonoma

We are still just beginning to recover from the North Bay fires of October 2017. The five-year Fire Recovery Plan currently being fine-tuned by the new Office of Recovery and Resiliency is an important step on the path forward.

When finalized by the Board of Supervisors this fall, it will guide priority policies and actions for fire recovery and resiliency in five areas: Housing, Natural Resources, Economy, Community Preparedness and Infrastructure, and Safety Net Services.

Many of us view this important county initiative as a “prequel” to the Sonoma County General Plan Update. It is prioritizing actions, land-use, and other policies that serve the goal of reducing fire risk and improving emergency preparedness. In the end, it should and make our communities and lands more resilient, healthy, and climate-smart.

People from across Sonoma County have flocked to public workshops that were recently held in every supervisorial district to share their vision of the recovery. Listening to their ideas, and considering the challenges we face, it’s clear that we must seize this opportunity to rethink how and where we rebuild and renew our communities.

How to Grow Fire-Safe Communities

Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown stated that across California, we need to “re-examine” where communities are built and developed. In Sonoma County, that means having difficult conversations about what fire-smart land-use policies are in relation to a landscape that needs to burn and has always burned. Preventing the loss of homes, and peoples’ lives, in the future will require us to keep new growth out of the wildland-urban interface (WUI)— the area where cities and towns transition into undeveloped lands.

Fortunately, we already have a solid basis of fire-safe land-use policies that focus on city-centered growth and avoiding sprawl. Our urban growth boundaries, community separators, and General Plan policies direct new homes and businesses into cities and towns and away from farmlands and open space. These important rules put us ahead of many areas of the state.

Yet we’ve seen again and again that building high on forested ridges and in remote canyons is not smart. Recent research has confirmed the truth of our observations. In fact, medium-density communities like Fountaingrove and those above Sonoma Valley are the most likely to experience loss of life and home.

The truth is that low-to-medium housing density is more highly correlated with loss of life and home from wildfires than any other factors. Topography, fuel, defensible space, building construction; all are less important in determining risk from wildfires than the low-to-medium densities typical of sprawl along the urban edge. Researcher Alexandra Syphard presented these and more comprehensive findings on development and wildfire at the Living with Fire Symposium at Sonoma State earlier this year. Google her name and you’ll find multiple research papers on the subject.

Historical Understanding of Fire-Safe Communities

This isn’t news. A 1991 U.S. Forest Service report titled Land-Use Planning May Reduce Fire Damage in the Urban-Wildland Intermix states that the risk of wildfire associated with development in the urban-wildland intermix is a nationwide issue. But while it’s been nearly 30 years, we have yet to internalize this important truth.

Here are several key findings based on case studies of wildfires on the urban edge in Monterey, Nevada, and Stanislaus counties, which are just as relevant today:

  • Good fire-safe planning protects homes threatened by fires, and loss occurs in the absence of good planning.
  • The damage observed in all three counties appears to be related to one of four problems: inadequate consideration of protection factors; disadvantages of small fire departments in dealing with real estate developers and other units of local government; variety in residential developments and in their susceptibility to control through planning; and conflicting interests among homeowners, developers, and local government.

“Current general planning law recognizes the threat of wildfire only to a very limited degree, and the treatment is superficial when compared to that given to flood and earthquake threats,” said the chairman of the California State Forestry Board at the time.

The conclusions are that we need to employ and enhance existing tools available for fire managers and planners to use in providing protection from wildland fires. These include environmental review, codes and regulations, the judicial process, and new legislation.

Here are the specific actions recommended, which we need to consider:

  1. convince community planners to accept fire protection factors.
  2. Increase the role of fire protection entities in community planning.
  3. Strengthen siting and building regulations
  4. Educate and change attitudes of planners and the public.
  5. Work toward an equitable sharing of costs and protection responsibility by developers, local governments, and fire protection agencies and departments.

Recommendations for Fire-Safe Communities

A much more recent 2017 US EPA report titled Smart Growth Fixes for Climate Adaptation and Resilience has a number of specific recommendations that we need to explore and employ, which are listed under the wildfire section.

  • Establish a task force that includes representatives from the public, nonprofit, private, and institutional sectors and have them review building codes, development patterns in the WUI, and other relevant elements like brush management codes.
  • Incorporate wildfire scenario planning into local planning to get a better sense of historical and projected wildfire-prone areas. Use this information to include wildfire issues in the comprehensive plan to reduce or prevent future development in wildfire-prone areas, and designate areas prone to wildfire in the future land-use element and future land-use maps.
  • Strengthen requirements for building and roof materials to be both fire-resistant and green.
  • Require new developments to submit a fire protection plan during site plan review. Plans should demonstrate where water can be obtained, how defensible space will be maintained, and how residents and firefighters can quickly and safely get in and out of the development.
  • Encourage or require compact development away from the WUI through comprehensive plans, area plans, and zoning codes. These strategies protect environmentally sensitive lands and land within the WUI from development pressure. Specific strategies can include:
    • Increasing the density of development and redevelopment allowed in or near existing towns and neighborhoods and along transit corridors.
    • Prioritizing infill development.
    • Promoting mixed-uses.
    • Using transfer of development rights to create incentives to preserve land in wildfire-prone areas and develop in safer areas.
  • Adopt wildfire hazard or WUI overlay districts with development regulations based on factors like slope hazard, structure hazard, and fuel hazard.
  • Acquire, through outright purchase or an easement, open space between densely forested areas and residential development to help prevent fires from spreading to developed areas.
  • A Community Protection Zone of open, green space at least 100 to 300 feet wide can separate homes from wildlands.

To learn more about the Fire Recovery Plan or how to support fire-safe communities in Sonoma County contact Teri Shore via email.

Photo: Mathesont via Flickr

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