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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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California's climate is growing warmer, and while this could eventually mean more rain, many climate scientists predict the change will result in a drier landscape. Some scientists expect the scrubby semi-desert landscape of Southern California to advance northward year by year. This might lead to less fuel on the land, though the warmer, drier climate could mean a greater likelihood of vegetation catching fire. Overall, scientists predict that global warming will lead to more severe wildfires throughout California.

Demographic trends are not helping, and as more people move into semi-rural, suburban areas — especially as they seek more affordable housing away from urban centers — the odds of wildfires breaking out increase. May, with the Berkeley Fire Department, said the pressures to provide housing for the Bay Area's growing population continue to generate construction in areas at high risk of burning. A bill passed in 2016, SB 1069, removed a variety of legal barriers against property owners building second "granny" units on their properties.

"It seems to have led to more housing units, and that definitely puts a burden on firefighters and our inspectors," he said.

In their Land article, Butsic and Kocher suggest that, in California, "local governments could try to develop their own restrictions on building in fire prone areas within their jurisdictions."

"Currently, general plans [in California] must address threats from wildfire, but do not prohibit homes being built in fire prone areas," the authors wrote. "The state could strengthen the language to require local jurisdictions to limit construction in hazardous areas and mandate design criteria."

Stewart believes California's government should support more research into fire-safe building patterns and more effective vegetation management. Perhaps most importantly of all, he said, Californians must turn wildfire history into a learning experience.

"If we don't make significant investments in new ways of managing vegetation and building these housing developments in the WUI," Stewart said, "we're going to be on this hamster wheel forever." 


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