New study advocates making homes less flammable, managing fuel and vegetation around homes, and neighborhood and community evacuation plans as effective strategies for surviving wildfires.
Paul Wellman (file)

We cannot stop wildfires — we must learn to live with them. So concludes a recent study led by Max Moritz, an associate at UCSB’S National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), “Learning to Coexist with Wildfire,” which was published in Nature earlier in November. In the study, Moritz and other UC scientists advocate a new, “coexistence” attitude towards wildfires, suggesting vulnerable cities like Santa Barbara must anticipate and adapt to the inevitability of fires through retrofitting homes and revamping disaster preparedness infrastructures.

Lead author Moritz, who also works at the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources as a cooperative extension specialist in fire, said humans need to change their perception of the potentially destructive natural force. “We don’t try to ‘fight’ earthquakes: We anticipate them in the way we plan communities, build buildings, and prepare for emergencies,” said Moritz in a statement. “We don’t think that way about fire, but our review indicates that we should. Human losses will only be mitigated when land-use planning takes fire hazards into account in the same manner as other natural hazards such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.”

Map of California high fire hazard zones show state responsibility areas in colors ranging from yellow to dark orange. White areas are federal or local firefighting jurisdictions.

“People tend to view fire as an enemy to be defeated. It’s never going to be defeated. By not recognizing its inevitability, we don’t necessarily look at our vulnerabilities as much as we would,” said contributor Dennis Odion, an associate project scientist at UCSB’s Earth Research Institute. Approaches that aim to eliminate the possibility of fire altogether through vegetation removal can have serious long-term effects as well, he added: “If you take fire out, it has some really detrimental ecological consequences.”

The study examined three highly fire-prone regions of the world in the U.S., Australia, and the Mediterranean to evaluate the differences between communities perched on the edge of especially flammable natural landscapes. The group’s research suggested that fire vulnerabilities vary widely due to the particulars of each ecosystem and that future fire strategies ought to better account for the hazards specific to each site — such as our local Santa Ana and sundowner winds and our chaparral environment, which burns differently than a conifer forest.

“A lot of fire folks are really fond of the idea that we can prescribe a burn to the chaparral, but that’s very, very temporary. When you get those kind of high winds, it could still spread through,” Odion said. “Chaparral is a very challenging kind of vegetation to live in, especially with the kind of weather that occurs in Santa Barbara.”

In their paper, researchers suggest retrofitting homes as the number one strategy for sustainable fire coexistence. Steps include swapping out roofing and siding materials with less flammable materials, managing fuel and vegetation resources around the home, as well as developing neighborhood and community evacuation plans.

Without incentives from insurance companies, however, many homeowners are left unprotected and unmotivated to safeguard their homes in high-risk areas, Moritz said. Insurance companies may penalize homeowners whose houses burn in known high-risk areas with a reduced settlement, yet they do not reward homeowners living in the same area who would take the steps to retrofit their homes. “There’s a little bit of a disconnect there; there’s a problem with incentivizing those retrofits in an effective way,” Moritz said.

Furthermore, though the state of California offers grants to reduce fire hazards, such as the 2014-2015 Fire Prevention Fund Drought Related Grant Program, the grants fund vegetation clearance and fire department equipment upgrades, but cannot be used towards retrofitting homes.

“There’s a lot of grant money out there from agencies and tax payer funded programs that offer funds towards wildfire mitigation projects, but a lot of them focus on vegetation removal. You can’t use those same plans to do structure retrofit, and that doesn’t make sense,” Moritz said.

When homes themselves are often the biggest igniters — wildfire embers may sometimes leap between properties and leave the vegetative fuel between intact — current policies leave large, neighborhood-sized gaps in potential government protection. “If we were a little bit more realistic about the fact that homes are a form of fuel, it makes sense for us to start thinking about allowing a wider use of agency funds for hazard mitigation,” he said. “Potentially being able to use those for structure retrofits can really make a big dent in the problem by reducing home losses.”

So while governments continue to devote resources towards snuffing out natural fuel sources, homeowners themselves remain burdened with the financial responsibility of defending their properties. Researchers advocate a greater attention paid to how vulnerable communities may be designed in the future or changed in the present, suggesting governments ought to increase road access to the most fire-prone communities (often in remote, mountainous areas in the western US), and focus more on defensively upgrading existing structures.

Until city planners and community members learn to treat fire as a force to be lived with and around, rather than a hazard to be eliminated, more destruction will continue, Moritz concluded in a statement. “We must accept wildfire as a crucial and inevitable natural process on many landscapes. … There is no alternative. The path we are on will lead to a deepening of our fire-related problems worldwide and will only become worse as the climate changes.”


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