Fire ecology is a scientific discipline that “focuses on the origins of wildland fire and its relationship to the environment that surrounds it, both living and non-living,” (source: Pacific Biodiversity Institute).
Climate change (which is causing more extreme heat, droughts, and other adverse conditions) is affecting the fire ecology of many western states, including California. States, municipalities, communities, policy makers, builders and designers, land owners, building owners and homeowners, and residents all have a part to play in helping reduce the risk of wildfires spreading into built environments and in creating fire-adapted, resilient communities and structures.
What are the specific things to be done when you want to retrofit your home for fire safety? There’s a guidebook that outlines the specifics of what to do.
FIRESafe MARIN was awarded a grant by CSAA Insurance Group to develop a custom home hardening education program and guidebook for California Residents. The Retrofit Guide available here for download is courtesy of IBHS, the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety, and is the top resource available today for homeowners interested in retrofitting existing homes. Research and post-fire assessments have shown that property owners can protect their homes and businesses against wildfire by addressing three clear sources of vulnerability:
Materials and design features used in building the home or business
The landscaping vegetation located immediately adjacent to the home or business
The general vegetation and other combustible materials and items on the property surrounding the home or business.
Each of these sources can be dealt with through maintenance, appropriate choices in building materials, design improvements, and vegetation management.
Here in Sonoma County, it was not until 2017 that we began to really dread October and November as “Fire Season”. Now when the wind blows strongly out of the North East we feel hyper alert, remembering the traumas of recent Autumns.
We wonder, “Why are the fires so much worse? Is it only the result of climate change, or is it forest management too?”
An article last September in The Washington Post, by Matthew Hurteau, associate professor of biology and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab at the University of New Mexico, cast some light on this topic.
Dr. Hurteau argues that “Fire Season” is a result of both factors. “The wildfires burning in the West are as large, hot and fast as they are because of climate change, as more heat and less water make vegetation more flammable.” And at the same time, in the dry forests of our coastal ranges, “there is too much fuel as a result of a century of fire suppression. Before then, these forests burned (less severely) with some regularity.”
“For years, even as the fuel built up, it remained pretty easy to put out significant fires, because the West was wetter and cooler than it is now. Beginning in the 1980s, however, as temperatures rose, the area susceptible to wildfires in the West began to spread. There were more crown fires in dry forests, and the problem grew significantly worse over the next three decades.”
Now that wildfires are occurring with increased frequency in Northern California, people are asking “What can I do to help my home survive a wildfire?”. Whether you are building a new home, adding on to an existing home, or rebuilding from a previous fire, there are some basic things to know about building in areas that are within a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) area.
The selection of building materials and designs to improve the ability of your home to survive a wildland-to-home fire spread, according to Steven Quarles, includes:
Maintain roof covering and replace with Class A when necessary
Remove debris from roof and gutters
Make sure the eave area can resist ember and anticipated flame exposure. Modify near-home vegetation as necessary.
Install multi-pane tempered glass windows
Remove combustible materials from under decks and use compliant decking.
Develop vegetation management plan and maintain selected plants and vegetation with adequate irrigation and removal of dead material.
“A wildfire-safe home must be an ember-resistant home, so that even if the flames do not reach your home, it will be able to withstand exposure to embers that may have been blown a mile or more in front of a wildfire. To provide maximum wildfire protection for your home, a combination of near-home vegetation management, appropriate building materials, and related design features must be used”.
As our Autumn “Fire Season” grows longer and more intense, we see an increasing interest in stopping the building of new homes and other structures in the Wildland Urban Interface.
Climate Change will continue to exacerbate the intensity of fires, and no amount of “hardening” structures will enable them to survive raging fire storms.
Nonetheless, who wouldn’t want to live in a rural area, surrounded by natural beauty?
An article last September in the NY Times by Christopher Flavelle, offers some interesting insights into shifting public opinions about restricting building in flood or fire-prone areas.
He writes, “Eighty-four percent of respondents, including 73 percent of Republicans, supported mandatory building codes in risky areas, and 57 percent supported making it illegal to build in those areas. More than half of respondents favored paying people to move, including three-quarters of Democrats.”
“As global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, decisions about where and how to build have become increasingly important. If local governments continue to allow homes to go up in places most exposed to climate change, such as coastlines, floodplains or fire-prone wilderness, experts say, it will make generations of current and future residents more vulnerable to worsening hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other disasters.”
Deputy Fire Chief Matt Gustafson of the Sonoma County Fire Protection District said, “We know that greenbelts coupled with the correct fuel management practices like prescribed burns and healthy groves, serve as buffers. Along with open space, this includes agricultural areas, vineyards, pastures, golf courses, and grazing lands. We are fortunate that in Windsor a majority of our urban growth interface has these buffers.”
“Multiple firefighting professionals, fire ecologists, and non-profit organizations are working together to reduce wildfire risk in greenbelts and the wildland-urban interface through defensible space, prescribed burns, vegetation management and best forest management practices.”
Clearly, our local government agencies are learning and adapting to meet the increasing challenges of wildfire in an era of climate change.
I’m a resident of Sonoma County, and like most North Bay and Northern California residents (and indeed the residents of most western states and many other parts of the world), I have been adversely affected by the ever-worsening wildfires and ever-longer fire seasons we’ve been experiencing these past few years. The regular and explosive fires, evacuations, red flag warnings, power outages, dangerous smoke in the air, apocalyptic skies, and mass disruptions to work and life in general have taken a toll on all of us. And many of us know people who lost their homes and their sense of security—and became climate refugees, facing displacement and years of insurance headaches and nightmares—because of these fires. I have some good friends who went through this trauma due to the 2017 Nuns Fire. I helped sift through the rubble and toxic ashes of their destroyed home and work studio, on a property that was formerly a sort of paradise and sanctuary; it was an intense and emotionally jarring experience, and it left a mark on me.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of these catastrophic wildfires fueled by dangerous climate conditions. But we are not helpless. There are many actions we can take to prevent or minimize further destruction. To assist our professional community in learning (and educating others) about important wildfire risk reduction efforts and resources, I was asked to help develop the USGBC-REC chapter’s new Fire Ecology resource links . These links, along with the Fire Ecology-related articles that the chapter has posted on its website and in its recent newsletters, can help you identify and implement a number of concrete actions that could protect your own family and residence, your clients and their properties, and your community from wildfires.
When doing this research on fire ecology and wildfire risk reduction resources, I was heartened to discover that there are many experts (e.g., pyrogeologists, fire ecologists, and all types of fire science aficionados and fire safety officials) doing good work, and many smart and positive efforts are underway to lessen the wildfire risks going forward; these include a number of efforts in Northern California and the North Bay. For example, there is a growing understanding among land managers, fire agencies, policymakers, and state and county staff of the need for prescribed fires (AKA controlled burns): a once-traditional, indigenous practice to reduce dry and dead vegetation (fuels) and to safely mimic and manage what would occur naturally if most wildfires hadn’t been suppressed over the last century. I’ve been glad to observe that, at least in Sonoma County, prescribed fires have been happening much more frequently and in many areas before this coming fire season; I’ve been seeing scheduled burns regularly posted on the PulsePoint App’s map, and I’ve also occasionally seen and smelled the smoke from some of these managed fires. I’ve also read about previous prescribed burns (as well as greenbelt buffers) in our County that did, in fact, help protect some neighborhoods from last year’s raging fires.
The Fire Ecology resource links are organized into the following three sections: General, Community-scale, and Property/Building-scale. They feature California and Northern California-specific (state, local, and regional) resources, as well as some national and international resources. The web links include useful organizations, agencies, guidelines and strategies, grants and funding opportunities, reports, and articles.
The Community-scale resources cover state, regional, local/municipal, and neighborhood-level land use/management (of public and privately owned lands), e.g., forest management, prescribed fires/controlled burns, greenbelt buffers / Urban Growth Boundaries (for the wildland-urban interface), zoning that restricts building (or re-building) in fire-prone (or flood-prone or other disaster-prone) areas, and fire-resilient infrastructure.
The Property / Building-scale resources cover site and structure-specific issues, such as residential and commercial landscaping, vegetation management, defensible space; home/building hardening and protection (design, building, remodeling, retrofitting strategies); and smoke protection and remediation, indoor air quality (IAQ) e.g., ventilation and air filtering.
And the links in the General section provide information on a wide range of topics that are relevant to both community-scale policies and practices, as well as property/building-scale (e.g., land owner, building/home owner, and resident) policies and practices.
In addition to doing everything we can to prevent or manage the spread of wildfires and to protect structures, people, and animals from wildfires, we all should also be doing everything we can (through our work, in our households, and as citizens) to help mitigate and slow climate change, as our fast-changing climate is the primary driver of these catastrophic wildfires that have become our “new normal.” To that end, you may be interested in reading some of these climate-specific posts on my blog ( TheGreenSpotlight.com ):
Researching, assembling, and curating resource lists is one of my favorite things to do, so I’m very pleased to have been given this opportunity to develop the list of resources and links on Fire Ecology and wildfire risk reduction for the USGBC-REC chapter’s website. I was on the chapter’s Steering Committee many years ago, when I was working as a green building consultant. Now I mostly do writing, editing, and research on a broad range of environmental (and social) issues, including the climate crisis, regenerative land use, and environmental health. I hope that you will find the Fire Ecology resources and the related links above to be helpful and that you will share them and put them to good use.
“Becerra… argued the project’s environmental impact report…did not sufficiently address the increased risk of wildfire that would result from the development, as well as the limited capacity for evacuation from the community should a fire occur.”