"… [I]t’s a fair bet that these fires, which now occupy the nightmares of every Californian, will be thought of as the 'old normal.' The good old days."
— David Wallace-Wells, Climate Reporter
More than a year after the October 2017 Tubbs Fire chased my wife and me out of Santa Rosa, California, we returned to celebrate the 2018 holiday season with our family and friends. Attending a small dinner gathering, we found that the fire — which killed at least 23 people in the area and destroyed 3,000 homes in the city alone — was still very much on people’s minds. Their earnest recounting of their experiences gave the impression the event had occurred the day before.
As the conversation progressed, I was pleased to find everyone grasped the connection between California’s recent wildfires and climate change. Our host and her husband, an architect, seemed particularly well-informed. She stated, correctly, that only major changes in the way our economy functions could reduce the risk of climate-connected fires, floods and general havoc.
I introduced the idea of legacy carbon — the fact that our emissions to date have predestined us to a certain amount of destruction and disruption — and the discussion turned to what we could do to adapt, especially to wildfires.
At that point the architect, who was engaged at the time in designing a new residence in an urban-wildlife interface zone (UWIZ), explained that we could build fire-resistant homes. California’s relatively strict building codes, he informed us, stipulate that new houses in UWIZs be built with non-combustible roofs and siding, that burnable landscaping be kept away from the building and so on. This would make them far safer.
I expressed my doubts as to the overall effectiveness of such measures, and we bantered a bit, but here’s the real point: Forests and chaparral, especially in relatively dry areas such as much of the Western U.S., have fairly short burn/rejuvenation cycles. Undisturbed ecosystems have figured out how to harness wildfires for their benefit by quickly converting built-up dead vegetation to ash that rejuvenates the soil.
But when human habitation intrudes into natural areas, we suppress fires in those areas to protect our buildings. Small wildfires are quickly put out, before they spread. This allows fuel that would normally reach a critical mass, and burn, to pile up — and up, and up. When hot-dry conditions, such as those induced by climate change, prevail, what would have been “normal” wildfires become massive, explosive conflagrations that spread far and wide before they can be even partially contained.
The trend of building in UWIZs has accelerated in recent decades. Nearly 13 million new houses were built in these zones between 1990 and 2010, mostly in Western states. That number is expected to grow by 10 percent or more per decade until mid-century. People want to live in that idyllic home in the woods, and who’s to tell them they can’t — except Mother Nature.
So, the trend of rural development is smashing headlong into the reality of “Hothouse Earth.” Significant wildfires are now a global phenomenon, with recent occurrences in the rain forests of British Columbia, across much of Australia, above Sweden’s Arctic Circle in Brazil and in Indonesia. It takes a great deal of ignorance, or a certain amount of financially-lubricated denial for planners and developers to tell home buyers that building in UWIZs is safe.
One of the guests at our holiday dinner was an insurance agent who volunteered that policy rates that reflected the risk of wildfires, as opposed to federal subsidies to homeowners, might help slow the UWIZ invasion trend. Another couple happily announced that they had just purchased a new home in a nice, undeveloped area overlooking a small California town.
It was the holidays. I changed the subject at our dear friends’ ecological house.