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Urban-Rural interface
Urban-Rural interface - Sonoma County - provided by Alexandra Syphard

Fire Recovery and Resiliency – Looking Forward

Aug 31, 2018
by Teri Shore, Greenbelt Alliance

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We are still just beginning to recover from last year’s North Bay fires of October 2017. The five-year Fire Recovery Plan now underway by the new Office of Recovery and Resiliency is a way to start looking forward.

When finalized by the Board of Supervisors this Fall, it will guide priority policies and actions for fire recovery and resiliency in five areas: Housing, Natural Resources, Economy, Community Preparedness and Infrastructure, and Safety Net Services.

Many of us view this important county initiative as a “prequel” to the Sonoma County General Plan Update as it is prioritizing actions land-use and other policies with the goal of reducing fire risk, improving emergency preparedness, and making our communities and lands more resilient, healthy and climate-smart.

People from across Sonoma County have been sharing their vision at public workshops that were recently held in every supervisorial district. This is an opportunity to rethink how and where we rebuild and renew our communities.

How to Grow Fire-Safe Communities

Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown stated that across California, we need to “re-examine” where communities in the state are built and developed. Here in Sonoma County, it is time to start having the difficult conversation about fire-smart land use policies that can prevent loss of homes and life in a landscape that needs to burn and has always burned. That means preventing and reducing the number of homes in the wildland-urban interface, defined as “where houses meet or intermingle with wildland vegetation.”

Fortunately, we already have a solid basis of fire-safe land use policies that focus on city-centered growth and avoid sprawl. Our Urban Growth Boundaries, community separators and General Plan policies that direct new homes and businesses into cities and towns and away from farmlands and open space put us ahead of many areas of the state.

Yet we’ve seen, and new research confirms, that building high on forested ridges and canyons is not smart. In fact, the type of medium-density communities like Fountaingrove and those above Sonoma Valley are the most likely to experience loss of life and home.

Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) where houses MEET or INTERMINGLE with wildland vegetation - provided by Alexandra Syphard and Anu Kramer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

In fact, housing density is more highly correlated with loss of life and home from wildfires than any other factors such as topography, fuel, defensible space and building construction. Researcher Alexandra Syphard presented these and more comprehensive findings on development and wildfire at the Living with Fire Conference at Sonoma State University earlier this year.

The risk of wildfire associated with development in the urban-wildland intermix is nationwide, according to a U.S. Forest Service report titled Land-Use Planning May Reduce Fire Damage in the Urban-Wildland IntermixThis was written in 1991, nearly 30 years ago!

Here were the key findings, which are just as relevant today:

The existing tools available for fire managers and planners to use in providing protection from wildland fires are environmental review, codes and regulations, the judicial process, and new legislation.

Here are the specific actions recommended, which we need to consider:

(I) convince community planners to accept fire protection factors;

(2) increase the role of fire protection entities in community planning;(

3) strengthen siting and building regulations;

4) educate and change attitudes of planners and the public; and

(5) work toward an equitable sharing of costs and protection responsibility by developers, local governments, and fire protection agencies and departments.

Before and After the Tubbs Fire -  - provided by Alexandra Syphard

So what do we do?

A much more recent 2017 US Environmental Protection Agency report titled Smart Growth Fixes for Climate Adaptation and Resilience has a number of specific recommendations under the wildfire section that we need to explore and employ.

Establish a task force that includes representatives from the public, nonprofit, private, and institutional sectors and have them review building codes, development patterns in the WUI, and other relevant elements like brush management codes.

Incorporate wildfire scenario planning into local planning to get a better sense of historical and projected wildfire-prone areas. Use this information to include wildfire issues in the comprehensive plan to reduce or prevent future development in wildfire-prone areas, and designate areas prone to wildfire in the future land use element and future land use maps.

Strengthen requirements for building and roof materials to be both fire-resistant and green.

Require new developments to submit a fire protection plan during site plan review. Plans should demonstrate where water can be obtained, how defensible space will be maintained, and how residents and firefighters can quickly and safely get in and out of the development.

Encourage or require compact development away from the WUI through comprehensive plans, area plans, and zoning codes. These strategies protect environmentally sensitive lands and land within the WUI from development pressure.

Housing Patterns-Exposure to fire - provided by Alexandra Syphard

Specific strategies can include:

  • Increasing the density of development and redevelopment allowed in or near existing towns and neighborhoods and along transit corridors.
  • Prioritizing infill development.
  • Promoting mixed uses.
  • Using transfer of development rights to create incentives to preserve land in wildfire-prone areas and develop in safer areas.
  • Adopt wildfire hazard or WUI overlay districts with development regulations based on factors like slope hazard, structure hazard, and fuel hazard.
  • Acquire, through outright purchase or an easement, open space between dense forested areas and residential development to help prevent fire from spreading to developed areas.
  • A Community Protection Zone of open, green space at least 100 to 300 feet wide can separate homes from wildlands.

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