In Southern California, water and fire can be a lethal combination. Just ask anyone who fled before December’s Thomas inferno only to evacuate again when rains slammed down on the burn areas, triggering deadly mudslides.
For those whose houses were incinerated or flooded out, the understandable impulse is to restore what has been lost. Given what these residents have been through, no city or county would stand in their way. And government officials won’t block reconstruction for another reason as well: They are directly complicit in the construction of countless developments that have penetrated deep into Southern California’s dangerous fire-and-slide prone urban-wildland interface.
Yet if city officials and county supervisors, and related zoning commissions and planning boards, continue to permit construction in what CalFire describes bluntly as Fire Hazard Severity Zones, even more homes will be at risk for fire first, and then the slides and floods that follow. The pattern will keep repeating itself as this region, already suffering from a fire-fueling seven-year drought, becomes hotter and more arid in response to a changing climate.
To break from this repetitive and dangerous cycle, to act in advance of the next firestorm, requires public officials to question two presumptions that most of them have been loath to critique: All growth is good growth, and voters never choose to pay more in taxes.
A few jurisdictions have ignored those axioms, and if their example were followed region-wide, it could help Southland communities develop more resilient and defensible landscapes.
Monrovia offers one such model. In the late 1990s, development threatened to overrun its foothills, with an estimated 120 building sites up for grabs. Residents went door-to-door to build support for a slow-growth policy. To their surprise, many respondents favored instead a no-growth strategy — fewer homes, more open space, and regulations that would maintain Monrovia’s small-town character.
Because the city’s hillside acreage was both publicly and privately owned, the City Council decided to seek voter approval for two measures. The first designated city-owned foothill land as wilderness or recreational space and limited development on the private property. The other was a $10-million bond, the revenues from which would be used to purchase building sites from willing sellers. Both passed by a wide margin. In the end, Monrovia spent $24 million for 1,416 acres, paying off the bonds with parcel taxes and gaining an added benefit: a deeper urban-wildland buffer.
Expanding such a protective zone was the explicit goal of Proposition 405, which Flagstaff, Ariz., brought before voters in 2013. A pair of damaging 2010 fires burned homes and torched the Rio de Flag watershed, devastation that was amplified when post-fire flooding scoured portions of the city. In response, residents passed Proposition 405, a $10-million bond, by a wide margin. The money generated by the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project has been spent on thinning upwards of 11,000 acres in the Coconino National Forest that surrounds Flagstaff. This has provided an important measure of fire protection along the wildland-urban interface, a reduction in urban flooding and in sediment that clogs local reservoirs. As Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott declared when the thinning began: “The risks of doing nothing are just too great. [We are well past] a 'hope for the best' strategy due to climate, drought and unhealthy forest conditions.”
These policies were smart and proactive individual actions, but to be even more effective, greater investment and greater coverage are required. The Thomas fire’s furious run across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties testifies as to why we should develop a robust, multijurisdictional response. One such possibility for Southern California is the creation of linked county-by-county “fire-and-flood control” bonds, framed to tackle the intertwined damage on a regional basis.
The resulting revenues would purchase two kinds of property: as-yet-unbuilt sites located within CalFire’s Fire Hazard Severity Zones (with a special focus on those sectors that have not burned in decades) and, on a willing-seller basis, residences that wildland fires have damaged or destroyed.
Taxing ourselves to create more open space in the foothills will not stop fires from erupting or rain from falling. It will give city and county planners a powerful tool by which to restrain growth, offer burned-out homeowners a safer option than rebuilding in fire zones, and give those living downhill in the path of the slides some much-needed breathing room.
Char Miller teaches in the environmental analysis program at Pomona College and is author of “Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream” and “America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands.”
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