The devastating wildfires that swept across California were supposed to be a wake-up call that finally would force local governments to rethink new housing development in high-fire-risk areas.
From Redding to Santa Rosa to Ventura, suburban neighborhoods once thought to be fireproof were destroyed by fast-moving flames. Even new homes built to the most up-to-date standards were charred. Communities that thought they were safe from wildfire discovered that their notification systems, evacuation routes and preparations were woefully insufficient for these bigger, faster, more intense fires.
The implications were pretty clear: In an era when climate change was expected to fuel more frequent and more devastating wildfires, California would need to stop promoting residential sprawl and build denser developments closer to city centers if it hoped to save lives and protect property.
That’s why a fire chief in San Diego County raised eyebrows recently when, during a discussion of whether to allow the development of 1,119 homes on chaparral-covered land east of Chula Vista, he suggested that building new homes on the urban fringe could help stop the spread of wildfires.
According to the Desert Sun, Cal Fire San Diego County Unit Chief Tony Mecham’s startling comment came as he was taking questions from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, whose members were considering approval of an upscale 1,284-acre development known as Adara at Otay Ranch. The site is prone to fires and most recently burned in the 2007 Harris fire.
The Board of Supervisors approved the project.
The fire chief is right that new homes built with fire-resistant materials and surrounded by less flammable landscaping are safer than older homes. But fire resistant is not the same as fireproof. In the 2017 Thomas fire in Ventura County, newly built homes that met the strictest codes were destroyed. Just because new home designs are safer doesn’t mean it’s safe — or a good idea — to keep putting them in areas known to burn.
Yet, elected officials continue to approve massive housing developments in high fire-risk areas. Last year the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the Centennial development, a 19,000-home mini-city to be built at Tejon Ranch in a remote valley that’s been deemed at “high” (or “very high”) risk of wildfires.
To be sure, California has a debilitating housing shortage that is driving up rents and home prices, fueling an increase in homelessness and handicapping efforts to attract and retain businesses. Yet, it should be clear by now that the old way of building — extending farther from the urban centers into high-fire-risk areas — is dangerous and counterproductive. It puts more people in harm’s way, including both residents and the firefighters tasked with protecting these new developments.
Los Angeles Times