If someone got a map of California and overlaid the state’s high-risk wildfire severity zones one would have an outline of all developable land in California. In other words, the state’s entire inventory of developable land is one big high-risk wildfire severity zone.
Let’s face it, most of California is a desert. Excluding the areas in and around the heavily wooded forests of the northern state, Californians dwell in either farm land or are urban dwellers – and mostly the latter. Indeed, less than six percent of the land area is populated by humans.
So, lawsuits against two developments in wildfire zones in San Diego County (“the County”) are, taken together, litigation against all development across California and are profoundly anti-growth.
This fact didn’t stop state Attorney General Xavier Bercerra. Earlier this month – as one of his last official acts as AG (last week Bercerra was confirmed by the Senate as President Biden’s Secretary of Health and Human Services) – he joined in the lawsuits, siding with the plaintiffs, on behalf of California.
While we Californians are primarily city folk, we have over the last 150 years adapted well to our surrounding, arid conditions. Despite the odds, we’ve managed to become the breadbasket of the world, annually harvesting an abundance of fruits, vegetables and nuts; we’ve built and filled some of the nation’s tallest buildings in its most preferred, thriving urban environments; we have constructed the most sophisticated highways and byways on the planet; and we’ve housed nearly 40 million people – mostly on surplus lands.
Yet, when it comes to wildfires – and the fact builders have figured out how to produce new homes that avoid the threat of conflagrations of all types – Californians have a blind spot. As a voting bloc, they act like the last fire was history’s deadliest or did the most damage to whole neighborhoods.
They ignore the success of new building products and techniques – used in subdivisions like Santa Clarita’s Stevenson Ranch. Residents of Stevenson Ranch never expected to see their homes again after fleeing a serious wildfire in 2007. Miraculously, the owners’ dream houses were still standing – all of them – when they returned to assess the damage after the fire had passed.
Why? First, non-flammable building products were used in the construction of the homes. For example, since embers drifting in the wind are the single-greatest cause of a fire’s spread, fire-safe roofing materials are now used.
Secondly, use of wooden exteriors was and still is being discouraged in high-risk fire zones – replaced by fire-retardant stucco in most cases. So far, the use of this product is only voluntary.
Third, builders are employing state-of-the-art subdivision design standards, improving “circulation” of emergency vehicles. This may not seem like a lot but tell that to the driver of a 60-foot fire truck. Chances are, he or she would rather be fighting the fire than fighting the community’s curbs and narrow roadways.
Lastly, new homebuyers are being advised of their responsibility to regularly clear their yards and other surrounding open spaces of dead leaves, tall grass and brush. Fuel, after all, is wildfire’s best friend. Indeed, maintaining this “defensible space” is now a warning issued by nearly all fire departments.
If you aren’t certain that keeping the space around your home clear of this “fuel” just ask Emil Costa, a resident of a San Diego County subdivision which was threatened by the region’s devastating “Witch” fire over a decade ago. Costa simply followed his builder’s instructions on defensible space and instead of evacuating fought the fire from within. He won.
And, during a recent wildfire in Orange County, fire officials decided to let residents take shelter in their homes (“shelter in place”) rather than evacuate them. “If we were not confident they would not be threatened,” said the County’s fire chief, “we would not put them in that situation.” He was right. Residents stayed put and, ultimately, saved their homes.
Note to AG: given the weight of evidence, why sue?