California built its way into extreme wildfire danger. Now it needs to build its way out

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On Monday, the Alisal Fire in Southern California burned through more than 13,000 acres in a 24-hour period, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Along with it came power shutoffs for tens of thousands of Californians in 23 counties across the state — a disruptive but increasingly unavoidable tactic to reduce the risk of additional fires from downed power lines.

As fire season extends later into the year, a growing share of Californians are being forced to reckon with its brutal effects. These events are not random freaks of nature. They are the consequence of decades of dissonance surrounding the scientific realities of living in fire country in California and the mushrooming threats from our rapidly changing climate.

While the devastation from wildfires may seem like the inevitable byproduct of climate change, state and local land-use decisions have a significant impact on the damage and losses incurred.

The intersection of suburban development and increasingly dry wildlands have created a hazardous confluence, for both humans and nature. We have unwittingly put millions of Californians at risk through land use regulations that encourage sprawl-style development farther into rural and remote areas that our own state fire experts warn are at extreme risk of wildfires.

From 1990 to 2010,
half of all new housing development
in California took place at the boundary of wildland areas, known formally as the “wildland-urban interface.” The result: California has over 1.4 million homes in areas at high risk of burning in a wildfire.

The widespread destruction of homes — and in the worst cases, entire communities like Paradise — will occur with growing frequency as long as we make it easier to build in the areas most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and harder to build needed infill housing in our urban areas.

California’s most-affluent coastal neighborhoods have long dictated housing policy in our state’s largest cities, effectively prohibiting new housing growth in the same areas that are most protected from wildfire encroachment. This, in turn, created a perverse incentive for developers, for whom the slow and costly process of building homes in our cities can be avoided by building faster and more cheaply in some of the most fire-prone rural areas in the state.

Even as wildfires in these rural communities grow more frequent and destructive, more Californians are moving there. Counties that still bear the scars of previous wildfires — like Butte County (home to Paradise) — are
seeing their populations increase,
driven in part by the housing shortage and unaffordability of other cities in the region.

The result? We’re increasing sprawl that forces Californians farther away from job centers, and the longer commutes that result are causing more toxic air and climate pollution.

In essence, California’s housing policies are simultaneously suffering from — and exacerbating — climate change.

Over 11 million Californians, 30% of the state’s population, live in areas of extreme wildfire risk. But rather than proactively mitigating this risk, local governments continue to locate significant new housing developments in fire danger zones. Research has found that 14 of the 20 most fire-vulnerable communities in the United States are in California. And while most of the census tracts in fire country are white and socioeconomically secure, many are retirees and lower-income service workers who are often just one missed paycheck — or one bad fire — from being homeless.

Climate vulnerability in the United States, whether from floods, storms or extreme heat, disproportionately punishes areas with larger populations of Black people, Latinos and Native Americans. Wildfire is no exception: Communities of color are 50% more vulnerable to the long-term destructive impacts of wildfires, due to disinvestment, segregation and exclusion.

California must do more to keep all communities safe from climate destruction, including wildfires, while also addressing the state’s acute housing crisis. Smart, thoughtful planning should locate new homes with the intent of increasing community resilience and reducing vulnerability to catastrophe.

The alternative is an accelerating treadmill of building homes that are subsequently destroyed — with possibly deadly consequences.

The convergence of our state’s housing and climate crises has stripped the veneer from many long-standing and untenable land use policies that prioritize the aesthetic, social and economic preferences of wealthier residents over existing, higher-resourced, lower-risk communities.

The solution set, while not novel or mysterious, will require political leadership — and courage: Our city and state leaders must act urgently to allow the construction of more affordable, climate-resilient, multifamily housing near good jobs, schools and transportation systems. Cities must find ways to reduce the red tape and excessive fees that make infill housing too expensive to build or too costly to rent on a median salary. They must prioritize housing in walkable areas that reduce pollution from cars. And they should defer to science-based fire boundaries as a land use planning tool in high-risk areas.

Land use policies that drive families into wildfire-prone areas aren’t just a failure of local governance, they’re ethically dubious, at best. California’s cities have more than enough room to accommodate current and future residents without placing families and workers needlessly in harm’s way and without forcing a growing share of their workforce into long, polluting car commutes.

The fact that we know what needs to be done implies we have an affirmative obligation to do it. It’s time for our elected officials to step into their leadership roles and make it happen.

Brian Hanlon is president and CEO of California YIMBY.

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