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Zoning policies have put millions at risk of losing everything to wildfires

California is burning, this year worse than ever before. For more than a month now, the state has been plagued by out-of-control wildfires that are painting the skies red and producing catastrophic destruction. These unfettered, seemingly unstoppable flames have become a fixture of California summers in recent years, and all evidence suggests they will only get worse.

There are a variety of factors that play a role in this ongoing crisis. Climate change has created ideal conditions for wildfires to start and spread, and a lack of sufficient resources, including personnel and equipment, have put firefighters — many of whom are incarcerated people — at a severe disadvantage. But one of the biggest factors is human hubris and inaction, an inability to fully acknowledge the risk posed by wildfires, and insistence to continue building in the likely path of future fires.

“One signal of this larger human dimension is the huge numbers of people who evacuate," Char Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis Program and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, tells Mic. "That’s how dense we have become in what we once thought of as the rural West." As many as 140,000 Californians were forced from their homes this August as the fires started to spread, and this month about 500,000 people in Oregon have been given orders to evacuate as dozens of fires make their way across the state. According to Miller, those evacuations are "a direct consequence of local and county policies that incentivize and greenlight housing developments in known fire zones."

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Fire zones are designated areas believed to have a risk of experiencing wildfires. There are a number of factors that go into determining the level of danger an area faces, including the amount of vegetation, weather conditions, the likelihood of ember production and spread, and historical risk.

Rebecca Miller, a Ph.D. candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, tells Mic that California first started making these assessments following the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, a large and unexpected urban blaze that killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 3,000 homes. The first fire zone maps were produced in 1998, then given updates in 2008 and 2020. But, Miller says, "prior to 2018, cities had a choice in whether they wanted to adopt the maps and wildfire-resistant regulations. Most cities did, but not all." By 2018, the California legislature mandated that cities adopt the maps and create regulations that require construction projects to make use of wildfire-resistant materials.

For decades prior to those laws going into effect, homes and other structures were built in areas that presented the very distinct and understood possibility that they may be consumed by fire. As many as five million people already live in areas that are in high-risk areas, and more are coming. In 2014, research conducted by the state of California found that to keep up with the growing population, as many as 1.2 million new homes were expected to be built in areas that were designated as having the highest level of wildfire risk. "We know not to do this in floodplains," Char Miller says. "Why do we blithely assume it is okay in high-severity fire zones?"

There is no simple answer to that question. California's population grew 7.3 percent over the last decade, and the state needs to continue expanding housing to support those new residents. Andrew Hurst, a research analyst at finance and insurance analysis firm Value Penguin, says that trying to stop new construction projects from occurring in fire zones is extremely difficult.

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"Any laws would have to account for those who already own land or live in an area that's deemed high-risk," he says. That might mean California would have to adopt a policy that many states have taken on to deal with housing in flood averse areas: purchasing homes and destroying them while rehousing entire towns and cities in areas out of harm's way. "In this instance, both parties would demand a fair payment from the government for leaving their homes or relinquishing their land. This could be very costly in areas of the country where land comes at a premium, as is the case in some parts of the West Coast where the risk of fire is high."

The other tricky aspect in California’s case is that most of the state is at some sort of risk, and fire zones are also likely to continue to get larger as the planet warms. "Since climate change is an ongoing crisis that will only become more severe with each year, the amount of acreage facing the greatest risk will proportionally increase, too. Legislation has got to be forward-facing and must account for millions of potentially-affected people," Hurst says.

Since so many homes and structures already exist within fire zones, a better solution might be to fortify the defenses against the flames. Fire-resistant materials produce significantly better outcomes when wildfires do inevitably sweep through an area. When the Camp Fire swept through the town of Paradise in 2018, as many as half of the homes constructed after 2008, when building projects were required to account for fire risks, survived with no damage. By comparison, only 18 percent of homes built before 2008 escaped without suffering any damage.

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It's possible to retrofit homes to bring them up to speed with modern construction code and give them the same layer of defense against wildfires that newer buildings have, but it's not cheap. According to a 2018 study, constructing a wildfire-resistant home costs about the same amount as constructing a typical home, but retrofitting an old home carries huge costs: up to $22,000 to replace a roof with a fire-resistant alternative and more than $40,000 to provide exterior walls that can withstand the flames.

Unfortunately, failing to make these upgrades can come with costs, too. Insurance companies are growing wary of providing coverage for homes that sit in high-risk fire zones. "It's not uncommon for insurance companies to drop coverage for policyholders who live in areas where the risk of recurring damage is increasing," Hurst says. Last December, state lawmakers prohibited insurance companies from dropping coverage for policyholders. That decision bought people an additional year of coverage while legislators and insurers negotiate, but there is a looming insurance crisis in which hundreds of thousands of people could lose out on protection should their home go up in flames. "If state insurance regulators reject insurers' requests to raise rates, companies may stop writing policies for an area altogether." "Ultimately, property owners will be left with a tough choice: if they can't afford coverage, or if it isn't available in their area, they'll have to pay for all property damages out of pocket or move," Hurst says. "This financial and emotional burden may not be something most American families can realistically take on."

Rebecca Miller says that one path forward is for the state to start helping homeowners protect their homes. "We need funding programs to help homeowners pay for these retrofits and protect their homes and neighborhood," she says. Earlier this year, California lawmakers passed a bill that was intended to create a $1 billion fund that would offer homeowners the ability to retrofit their homes with the necessary fire-resistant materials through no or low-interest loans. When that bill passed, though, it had no state funding associated with it. While the state did secure $100 million in federal assistance for the program, it is well short of what’s needed to accommodate unprotected homes, which could cost billions.

Rebecca Miller said it is also time to "think seriously" about how we build neighborhoods. "We need programs that emphasize and support herd immunity from fires. Neighborhoods need to prepare together for wildfires, especially in areas where homes are tightly packed together and a fire burning at one home could easily jump to the next," she says. Likewise, she says that rebuilding efforts after a fire can't pretend that the risks no longer exist. "A neighborhood that burned once is very likely to burn again, but if it’s not in a fire hazard severity zone, then the rebuilt home wouldn’t need to comply with the wildfire-resistant construction regulations." She pointed to the destruction that plagued Coffey Park during the Tubbs Fire in 2017. More than 1,300 homes were destroyed, but there is no guarantee that the rebuilt homes will fare any better should another wildfire strike the region. “[Coffey Park] wasn’t in a fire hazard severity zone, so the rebuilds didn’t have to meet those regulations," she says.

Getting out of the way of fires may not be viable, particularly as climate change continues to make wildfires easier to spark and provides conditions that enable the flames to spread. But pretending that these fires won't happen isn't viable, either. States need to acknowledge the reality that fires will happen and homes will be in the path of the flames and start figuring out the best way to ensure those structures survive.