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The Social Costs of Living in Wildfire-Prone Areas

With dangerous fires becoming the norm in California, the price to pay for living in and near wooded areas can no longer be ignored.



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Andrea Pook, a spokesperson with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, said her agency uses grazing animals — cows, horses, and goats — to trim vegetation, specifically for the purpose of controlling potentially dangerous fuel loads. She said the district's rangers are trained in wildfire response protocol, including "live fire training," and that they consult routinely with Cal Fire, surrounding county governments, and the Moraga-Orinda Fire District on wildfire prevention and firefighting measures. Hillsides burned by wildfire may be vulnerable to rapid erosion, which can impact water quality in streams and lakes.

"Our main focus with these measures is to protect the East Bay's water supply," Pook said.

While Gov. Brown signed an executive order accompanied by $96 million in May to ramp up forest management and restoration projects, including more prescribed burns, Stewart said he isn't impressed by the state's actions in the wake of last year's fires. The 2018 budget was finalized just weeks after the record-sized Thomas Fire, which killed one person, was extinguished.

"The new budget gave Cal Fire 60 new firefighters and a fire and fuel specialist," Stewart said. "That's all they got after last year."

He said society tends to be concerned about wildfires during and immediately after high-profile catastrophic events. However, the attention is often short-lived and doesn't generate change before the next fire strikes.

"It's surprisingly hard to get investments in fire prevention strategies, even after the scale of the fires we just had," Stewart said.

PG&E, however, is spending about $1 million per mile of power line to replace or upgrade infrastructure that passes through high-fire risk areas. The utility company maintains about 81,000 overhead circuit miles of lines in California, with about 7,100 miles passing through what Cal Fire classifies as "Tier 3" — extreme fire risk areas. Much of the East Bay hills, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the North Bay are deemed Tier 3.

A longtime employee in the company's electric department who spoke to the Express on the condition of anonymity said the upgrade work will take about 15 years to complete at a target pace of some 400 miles per year. Overhead power lines, which are generally bare copper, are either being moved underground or replaced with coated wires that resist sparking when struck by tree limbs. Because protected lines are heavier, this will require the replacement of hundreds of thousands of utility poles.

"In my 33 years with the company I have never seen such an organized effort to install so much insulated covered tree wire, heavy-duty poles, and protective equipment for the electric system," the PG&E employee said. "The infrastructure being installed is unprecedented. We are now installing multiple times the amount of infrastructure a year from previous years, and we have never been at such a rapid pace of tree removal and trimming."

Arborists are helping direct the tree trimming and removal work, the source said. Just recently, a beekeeper was called to remove a colony of honeybees that had built a hive on a power pole.

"That's just one example of the effort we're taking to minimize environmental impacts," the employee said.

Scores of weather stations are being installed throughout the company's service area. These will measure such conditions as temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed and allow the company's system managers to determine if and when to shut off power as a protective measure against wildfires. The utility company recently announced a new protocol for turning off a region's electricity when weather conditions develop — especially strong winds — that could start a wildfire along a powerline.

The source noted that PG&E is "in a delicate situation" of trying to deliver power to customers, many of whom live deep in the woods, "while being good stewards to the forest."

While the average size and severity of wildfires grows, there is little serious talk in California of restricting building in the wildland-urban interface.

"Local governments aren't very excited about telling people how or where to build their homes," Stewart said. "These are elected officials, and they would be telling their constituents what to do on private property."

But this hands-off approach to governing private land doesn't apply everywhere. In 2016, researcher Susan Kocher spent nine months on sabbatical in Provence, the arid region of southern France that resembles much of inland California. Here, Kocher — the Central Sierra Natural Resources Advisor for the UC Cooperative Extension — compared building patterns in high-fire risk parts of California and France.

"In California we often say, 'We should be able to tell people they can't build here,'" said Kocher, whose research, coauthored with Butsic, was published in March of 2017 in the journal Land. "In France, they just tell people they can't build somewhere."

Kocher and Butsic observed that the French government tends to be more involved in building regulations. Building in very high-risk areas has been prohibited, and in exceptional cases properties can be expropriated "if displacing people whose life is threatened by a risk proves to be the only solution at an acceptable cost," they wrote in their report.

By contrast, many local officials in California have ignored fire hazards and allowed risky development, said Kocher and Butsic. For example, after the Oakland hills firestorm, a state law was passed requiring mapping of high-risk fire areas. Although the City of Oakland strengthened its building and fire-prevention codes by placing more regulations on the separation of buildings, ventilation criteria, and other fire-mitigation measures, they also permitted rebuilding of nearly all the destroyed homes, allowing many of them to increase in size. "Such disregard for fire hazard by local authorities is more difficult in France," the authors wrote. In general, California seems to lag in government oversight of fire-safe building, and it's likely there are too many at-risk homes for public agencies to reliably inspect for safety codes and protect from fires. This puts the onus on homeowners to manage their own properties — something millions of the state's homeowners probably don't do adequately.


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