Population boom in West putting humans closer to devastating wildfires

DENVER – Nearly half the population of the West lives in an area with potential for wildfire danger. And both the risk of fire and the population in harm’s way are rising in this fast-growing part of the nation.

Eighty-four percent of the risk area has not yet been developed.

“Which means the problem is going to get much worse,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of the nonprofit Headwaters Economic Group, a Montana research organization studying wildfire risk and community development.

Since 2000, more than 1 million people in Colorado, 3 million in Arizona and 21 million in California have been threatened by wildfires that came within 10 or fewer miles of their towns, according to data from Headwaters.

The organization is one of several tracking the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, an area where man-made structures exist near or within flammable vegetation.

The nation watched in horror in November as the Camp Fire east of Chico became the deadliest in California history, with more than 80 lives lost and others still missing when the fire was finally contained after burning nearly a month. About 19,000 buildings were destroyed.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Nov. 10, President Donald Trump tweeted about the Camp Fire and several others burning in California: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Firefighters work to keep the Woolsey fire from reaching this house near Calabasas, Calif., in November. The house was one of few in the neighborhood that did not burn. (Photo courtesy Steve Purcell)

Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service, said firefighters often suppress natural forest fires to protect homes and people, but over time, that has disrupted the natural fire ecosystem, causing thicker vegetation and a build-up of fuels in forest areas.

It is important to invest in the health of the forest by removing overcrowded fuels, he said. But that can be difficult to do.

“We can’t let fires burn with overcrowded forests where people live,” Lester said. “It’s just too dangerous.”

In northern Arizona, a multi-government agency called the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, is thinning ponderosa forests from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico line in hopes of preventing devastating fires.

4FRI, which encompasses four national forests in that area, got its start in 2009 with federal funding, after years of historically large and devastating wildfires in northern Arizona.

Dick Fleishman helps manage tree-thinning operations for 4FRI. He points to one side of a fence where privately-owned land hasn’t been thinned. On the other, is a 4FRI area of large grassy expanses and distinct clumps of older trees.

“Here with the grassy openings, the fire would get on the ground and burn as a surface fire,” he said.

That’s an important distinction: Surface fires burn low and slow, while a fire in tree branches burns hot and fast – and is highly destructive.

Fleishman said the forests closest to where people live are the highest priority for restoration. Because not only would a wildfire burn trees, it also burns soil – which makes conditions ripe for catastrophic floods in the rainy seasons.

Near Flagstaff, homes are going up right next to national forest land. The space is ideal for nature-lovers, but nature needs to be managed. Especially when fire is as critical to the land as water and air, said Brienne Petit, 4FRI spokeswoman.

“We want more fire that behaves the way it actually should,” Petit said. “These forests need fire to survive.”

Arizona’s biggest wildfires, Rodeo-Chediski in 2002 and Wallow in 2011, burned for weeks and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Part of that damage was to the water supply because the fires burned in the watershed.

Voters in Flagstaff passed a $10 million bond five years ago to help. But that alone isn’t going to be enough to treat the amount of forest covering the city’s watershed.

Arizona Game & Fish Department coordinator Steve Rosenstock said that ballot initiative is just one way to move the forest restoration forward.

“That is a very, very unique thing, and in these times when budgets are tight having that other sort of funding could make the difference between a project happening or not,” Rosenstock said.

Brent Poindexter is a volunteer firefighter in Colorado who moved into a WUI area near the New Mexico state line. He said he knew the risk of living among thick pines when he moved into Forbes Park neighborhood in Costilla County about two years ago, but the tranquility of the place moved him to settle there anyway.

“It was by choice, 100 percent, and it was beautiful here,” he said. “But you know that going in, that’s a risk you take.”

Poindexter said he knew it was probably just a matter of time before fire erupted in his neighborhood. He was right.

In July, the Spring Creek Fire, the third largest in Colorado history, charred more than 100,000 acres of land and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, including Poindexter’s. His three-level log house was reduced to ash and rubble.

“If there wasn’t these houses here, we would obviously just let it burn, and let Mother Nature do its thing,” said Poindexter, who volunteered to fight the blaze.

If more fires could burn naturally, there would be some benefits to the forests, experts say.

“Wildfire is a really interesting sustainability issue,” said Alex Hall, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the UCLA. He also directs the Center for Climate Science.

Fires can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter. They also can help the ecosystem balance because they destroy diseased plants and dangerous insects, such as the bark beetle that has decimated millions of acres of forest in the West over the past decade.

And the fires even regenerate seeds for trees that require intense heat every few years to sprout.

“Wildfire is a natural part of our landscapes, and our natural landscapes actually need wildfire,” Hall said.

But Western wildfires have been getting more dangerous and deadly. And the influx of population into the WUI, combined with the effects of climate change, mean those trends are likely to continue.

“Greenhouse gases trap heat, and that has led to a steady warming of the planet that has been accelerating in recent decades,” Hall said. “Fires are driven by dry and hot winds, and when winds become hotter and drier, that leads to greater fire risk.”

Climate change also increases the swings between very wet and dry years, putting more vegetation at fire risk, he said.

“We’re beginning to see the climate-change signal emerge certainly in the climate record, and then at the same time the fires are also becoming unprecedented,” Hall said. “We’re seeing fires that are setting records in terms of their size and their intensity.”

Reporters Lori Jane Gliha of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Casey Kuhn of KJZZ in Phoenix and David Nazar of PBS SoCal in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

New houses, built to fire code, burned down anyway in Southern California’s 2017 Thomas Fire

LOS ANGELES – California’s building codes are not keeping up with the severe, wind-driven wildfires that are becoming the norm.

Ten years ago, the state passed strict new standards for homes built in high fire-risk areas. But even homes built to those standards were destroyed in last December’s Thomas Fire. Now, homes are being rebuilt in the same places, under the same codes.

In the Ventura Foothills, about an hour northwest of Malibu, four of the nine homes on Andorra Lane burned down in the Thomas Fire. Almost no one expected it. After all, the homes were brand new. They were surrounded by dozens of other homes. And most importantly, they met the state’s building codes for areas at heightened risk of wildfires.

Nancy Bohman, who lives in one of the Andorra Lane homes that survived the fire, said she was “totally shocked. Totally blown away, ’cause look,” she said, slapping the sturdy outside wall of her house. “It’s stucco and a concrete roof.”

Where you build your home is more important than what materials you build it from, says fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard with the Conservation Biology Institute. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman/KPCC).

Very high fire-hazard zones

“Almost no one” expected homes on Andorra Lane to burn down, but at least one agency did: CalFire.

Andorra Lane is tucked into a fold of the foothills above Ventura, and the entire nine-home subdivision is in a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” That’s a technical term created by CalFire, and it applies to neighborhoods on the edge of undeveloped land, “the wildland urban interface” where severe wildfires are likely. That area is also known as the WUI for wild urban interface.

The term is important because, since 2008, all homes built in these zones have had to meet strict building codes designed to prevent them from catching on fire. They must have fire resistant roofs and siding; fine mesh screen on attic vents to keep embers out; decks and patios made of non-flammable material, and heat-resistant windows.

Built in 2016, the houses on Andorra Lane had all of those things. They were supposed to have a better chance of surviving a wildfire than older homes without those protective features.

“Nobody ever reads the fine print”

When the first residents of Andorra Lane moved into their houses in 2016 and ’17, few realized their homes were in a risky place. But buried in their closing documents was a small disclosure, telling them they were moving into a “very high fire-hazard severity zone.”

“We flipped through hundreds of pages; I’m sure nobody ever reads the fine print,” said Phil Azer, one of the four burned-out homeowners on Andorra Lane. “I think I was probably more concerned about earthquakes.”

His neighbors had similar experiences: Only one recalled seeing the fine print.

“I don’t think (the real estate agent) ever actually said, ‘Hey, do you realize you’re on a flood or fire zone, or anything like that?'” Bohman said.

The developer, Williams Homes, declined to comment.

Why did the houses burn?

Ventura City Fire Marshal Joe Morelli thinks topography played a role. The narrow valley that Andorra Lane sits in may have acted as a wind tunnel, funneling embers toward the neighborhood.

“Really what we had was something like a blowtorch going through our city,” Morelli said. “And even with the fire-resistant construction standards you can still have loss. They’re not fireproof standards.”

Researchers who study how houses burn say embers are to blame, not walls of flame.

When embers land on ornamental mulch, pine needles built up at the base of a wall or wooden deck furniture, they smolder. And those little fires can eventually ignite the house itself, even a fire-resistant house, especially if no one is there to put them out, as is usually the case in an evacuation zone during a mega-fire.

California wildland fire codes may also have weaknesses, Morelli said. They don’t cover wooden sheds, carports or backyard play structures, which can ignite, sending embers towards the house. Nor do they cover skylights that open outward. And garage doors aren’t as fire-resistant as they could be, meaning embers can get sucked underneath them, igniting whatever is inside.

Being new, the houses on Andorra Lane were likely some of the most fire-resistant in Ventura. But many of the older houses that burned in the Thomas Fire also had some fire-resistant features.

According to CalFire data, 80 percent of houses destroyed in the Thomas Fire had fire-resistant exteriors and 90 percent had fire-resistant roofs.

It’s where you build, not what you build with

To fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard with the Conservation Biology Institute, it’s becoming increasingly clear that houses built in risky places are impossible to fireproof.

“You can make a big difference in increasing the potential safety of your house, but you can’t guarantee that it’s not going to burn,” she said.

Her research has found that where you build your house, not what it’s made of, is the biggest factor in determining whether it will burn.

But city and state officials are reluctant to do anything that would increase the cost of new housing. Yolanda Bundy, the chief building official with the city of Ventura, said she’s just not focused on changing local building codes or overhauling land use planning at the moment.

“Right now, all the efforts are concentrated on helping people rebuild their homes, not to create more rules or regulations or more processes,” she told KPCC earlier this year.

The burned homes in “very high fire-hazards severity zones” will be rebuilt according to the newest codes, which Bundy still considers a big improvement because nearly all 777 of them were constructed before 2008.

Statewide, new building codes are adopted every three years. That means lessons learned from the Thomas Fire will not be incorporated into the next round of code changes.

“We’re constantly playing catch up,” said Pete Muñoa, CalFire’s deputy chief of land use planning. “We’re trying to be proactive to see how we can make homes more survivable by adding additional code requirements.”

But, he said, regulators also have to balance safety with cost.

“Depending on the pushback we get from industry, we may or may not be successful in getting codes that we believe are going to be effective.”

Many of the homes destroyed on Andorra Lane were ignited by embers, not by walls of flame, experts say. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman/KPCC)

What you can do

So, what should you do if you live in a high fire risk area, or are rebuilding your house in one? Focus on the area 30 feet around your house, said Tom Welle with the National Fire Protection Association.

The first five feet out from your foundation should be nearly bare, or only covered with non-flammable plants or landscaping. Beyond that, Welle said to “think about where leaves and debris just pile up because of wind. That’s where embers are going to go.”

Keeping your house from igniting is really important, Morellis said, because nearly 90 percent of houses that ignite, even brand new houses, are destroyed.

This piece is part of a multimedia series from Elemental: Fire in the Neighborhood. You can see a television show about fires in the wild urban interface here: