California needs to rethink urban fire risk, starting with where it builds houses
These fires follow the wind-driven Tubbs fire earlier this fall that blasted through densely urbanized neighborhoods in Northern California, causing dozens of fatalities and thousands of home losses. Stories from both fires of how fast the fire spread and how little time people had to evacuate are stunning.
With widespread damage to structures, these fires highlight the importance of where and how we build our communities and, in particular, how land use planning and better building codes can reduce our exposure to such events.
Despite how unusual the devastation appear in portions of these fires, we need to recognize that these structure-to-structure “urban conflagrations” have happened in the past and will happen again. Yet these fires revealed that we have key gaps in our policy and planning related to assessing risk in fire-prone environments.
What is increasingly clear to fire researchers like me is that losses on the human side are often driven by where and how we build our communities. This means we must learn to coexist with fire, if we are going to inhabit fire-prone landscapes, just as we adapt to other natural hazards. An essential step is to shift our perspective from a focus on hazard to one that more comprehensively includes human vulnerabilities.
California is leading the way in mapping the danger that wildfires pose to human communities and, in particular, linking building codes to fire severities that may be expected in given location. The state’s Fire Hazard Severity Zone maps are an essential step in recognizing fire as an inevitable process that must be accommodated, similar to how we plan for floods, landslides, earthquakes and hurricanes.
What is missing from these maps, however, is extreme weather patterns. The Santa Ana winds of Southern California are a notable example. Strong, hot and dry wind episodes are associated with nearly all of our largest and most destructive wildfires, including the 1964 Hanley fire in Northern California that burned an almost identical footprint to the Tubbs fire, yet relatively little is currently known about how often they occur across a landscape.
New methods are becoming available for mapping and modeling winds, and future versions of the Fire Hazard Severity Zone maps will therefore include such weather conditions. Similar maps are also needed for fire-prone areas outside California.
Despite technical advances, a key problem with most mapped approaches to fire danger is that the focus is almost exclusively on characterizing the hazard – flame lengths, rates of spread or fire intensities of an oncoming wildfire – and much less on the vulnerabilities of what is actually exposed. The “wildland-urban interface,” where developed lands are exposed to natural, flammable areas, is thus often mapped and assumed to be where the exposure ends.
Clearly this is not always the case. Analogous to when a levee fails, after a wildfire manages to ignite homes along the wildland-urban interface, many homes farther inside the neighborhood can quickly become exposed.
Depending on the building codes in place during their construction, these newly exposed structures may or may not be very fire-resistant. Their vulnerability to ignition can also be especially high if they are spaced closely together and the winds are strong, because that is when fire spread transitions to a structure-to-structure domino effect.
Better fire risk mapping means we should be able refine our notion and approach to assessing vulnerability.
Reducing human exposure
There are numerous reports of how difficult and deadly it was to evacuate during the Tubbs fire. Apparently many people had almost no warning at all. This highlights the importance of both evacuation planning and evacuation communication systems, as getting out in time is what Americans tend to rely on in wildfire situations.
Although evacuation preparedness is nearly always mentioned in Community Wildfire Protection Plans and standard guidance for home owners, the overriding message is typically to “leave early” whenever possible.
While absolutely correct, this advice minimizes the importance of pre-fire evacuation planning and the short time there may be to get out. It takes quite a bit of thought and effort to anticipate being in such a crisis situation!
What should one take, and where might one actually go?
On short notice, how does one account for pets, children or the elderly?
Is there a place one should retreat to, if evacuation orders are received too late or not at all?
This last question may be the one that gets the least attention, and the many fatalities in the Tubbs fire suggest that it requires much deeper consideration. Firefighters are often given specific training about what to do with limited evacuation options. For homeowners, however, guidance can be sparse.
When it is too late and too dangerous to evacuate safely, fallback options must be considered and communicated ahead of time. In an urban conflagration situation, local details dictate whether “safety zones” actually exist as places to take refuge. Given the real potential for such disasters, many communities should consider identifying (or building) key “hardened” structures to act as local-scale refuges.
Reducing human exposure involves more attention to what people must do during a wildfire, or even the rare urban conflagration. Safe evacuation deserves as much emphasis as reduction of fuels, such as creating defensible space around homes or larger scale fuel breaks by thinning vegetation around communities.
A safer built environment
From the scale of individual home construction up to the location and arrangement of development on a landscape, our communities should be better able to survive the natural hazards that occur there. This requires both short- and long-term strategies for achieving a safer built environment.
As a starting point, we must acknowledge that we currently have tens of thousands – possibly even hundreds of thousands – of homes constructed according to building codes that leave these structures vulnerable to ignition. Amazingly, however, there are very few examples of grant programs to mitigate such vulnerabilities through retrofit programs to, for instance, replace wood shake shingle roofs or to upgrade attic and crawlspace vents to block embers from entering homes.
In contrast, there are millions of dollars in public funds spent annually on community-scale fuel reduction projects. These are common activities pursued by Fire Safe Councils in California and similar organizations in other states.
The same level of support should be available for mitigation of fire-related structure vulnerabilities as there is for hazards.
Over the long term, land use planning is probably the most effective tool available for creating safer communities. We must be more deliberate about how we develop on fire-prone landscapes, taking advantage of emerging hazard-mapping techniques.
The goal here is not necessarily to build fewer homes, but to design and site developments that avoid the highest hazard regions and concentrate development in the lowest hazard areas. This logic applies, to varying degrees, to constraining development with respect to other natural hazards.
Despite an aversion by some to land use planning, this strategy is simply common sense. It will also save lives and massive amounts of public resources over the long term.
Where we do choose to develop and inhabit hazard-prone environments, it may be necessary to design communities with “passive survivability” in mind, or the ability to withstand the event and have water and power for a few days. This provides both the built environment and the people within some basic protection for a limited time.
Strategies exist to lower the risk of fire in the current housing stock and to more carefully design and site future development where wildfires are possible. With increasing extremes expected as climate continues to change, officially recognizing this link and creating a safer built environment will only become more urgent.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on October 23, 2017.
President Trump’s national monument rollback is illegal and likely to be reversed in court
Nicholas Bryner, University of California, Los Angeles; Eric Biber, University of California, Berkeley; Mark Squillace, University of Colorado, and Sean B. Hecht, University of California, Los AngelesOn Dec. 4, President Trump traveled to Utah to sign proclamations downsizing Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly 50 percent. “[S]ome people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said. “And guess what? They’re wrong.”
Native American tribes and environmental organizations have already filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s action. In our analysis as environmental and natural resources law scholars, the president’s action is illegal and will likely be overturned in court.
Contests over land use
Since 1906 the Antiquities Act has given presidents the authority to set aside federal lands in order to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”
In September the Washington Post published a leaked copy of Zinke’s detailed recommendations. They included downsizing, changing management plans or loosening restrictions at a total of 10 monuments, including three ocean monuments.
Trump’s proclamations on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante note the long list of objects that the monuments were created to protect, but claim that many of these objects are “not unique,” “not of significant scientific or historic interest,” or “not under threat of damage or destruction.”
As a result, Trump’s orders split each monument into smaller units, excluding large tracts that are deemed “unnecessary.” Areas cut from the monuments, including coal-rich portions of the Kaiparowits Plateau, will be reopened to mineral leasing, mining and other uses.
What the law says
The key question at issue is whether the Antiquities Act empowers presidents to alter or revoke decisions by past administrations. The Property Clause of the Constitution gives Congress the power to decide what happens on “territory or other property belonging to the United States.” When Congress passed the Antiquities Act, it delegated a portion of that authority to the president so that administrations could act quickly to protect resources or sites that are threatened.
Critics of recent national monuments argue that if a president can create a national monument, the next one can undo it. However, the Antiquities Act speaks only of designating monuments. It says nothing about abolishing or shrinking them.
Two other early land management statutes – the Pickett Act of 1910 and the Forest Service Organic Act of 1897 – authorized the president to withdraw other types of land, and specifically stated that the president could modify or revoke those actions. In contrast, the Antiquities Act is silent on reversing past decisions.
In 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered abolishing the Castle-Pinckney National Monument – a deteriorating fort in Charleston, South Carolina – Attorney General Homer Cummings advised that the president did not have the power to take this step. (Congress abolished the monument in 1951.)
Congress enacted a major overhaul of public lands law in 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, repealing many earlier laws. However, it did not repeal the Antiquities Act. The House Committee that drafted the 1976 law also made clear in legislative reports that it intended to prohibit the president from modifying or abolishing a national monument, stating that the law would “specifically reserve to the Congress the authority to modify and revoke withdrawals for national monuments created under the Antiquities Act.”
Since that time, no president until Trump has attempted to revoke or downsize any national monument. Trump’s changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante depend on an argument that presidential declarations about what a national monument protects are subject to second-guessing by subsequent presidents. These claims run counter to every court decision that has examined the Antiquities Act.
Courts have always been deferential to presidents’ use of the law, and no court has ever struck down a monument based on its size or the types of objects it is designed to protect. Congress, rather than the President, has the authority to alter monuments, should it decide that changes are appropriate.
The value of preservation
This summer 118 other law professors, as well as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a number of conservation organizations, cited our analysis in letters to Secretary Zinke concluding that the president does not have authority to downsize or revoke national monuments.
Although many national monuments faced vociferous local opposition when they were declared, including Jackson Hole National Monument (now part of Grand Teton National Park), over time, Americans have come to appreciate them.
Indeed, Congress has converted many into national parks, including Acadia, the Grand Canyon, Arches and Joshua Tree. These four parks alone attracted over 13 million visitors in 2016. The aesthetic, cultural, scientific, spiritual and economic value of preserving them has long exceeded whatever short-term benefit could have been derived without legal protection.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are home to many natural and archaeological wonders, including scenic bluffs, petroglyphs, burial grounds and other sacred sites and a rich diversity of plant and animal life. The five Native American tribes that supported protecting Bears Ears, led by the Navajo Nation, have vowed to defend the monuments in court. President Trump’s effort to scale back these monuments oversteps his authority and is unlikely to stand.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 27, 2017.
Nicholas Bryner, Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy, University of California, Los Angeles; Eric Biber, Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley; Mark Squillace, Professor of Law, University of Colorado, and Sean B. Hecht, Professor of Policy and Practice; Co-Executive Director, Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment; and Co-Director, UCLA Law Environmental Law Clinic, University of California, Los Angeles
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