In December 2017, California’s Thomas Fire ravaged Santa Barbara County but only destroyed seven homes in Montecito.
In December 2017, California’s Thomas Fire ravaged Santa Barbara County but only destroyed seven homes in Montecito. (Photo: Mike Eliason/AP)

How to Build Fireproof Towns

There's one realistic thing we can do to survive the new era of giant blazes: build smarter communities that can take the heat

In December 2017, California’s Thomas Fire ravaged Santa Barbara County but only destroyed seven homes in Montecito.

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Ken Pimlott, the director of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, retired on December 14. A synopsis of his exit advice to residents after 30 years on the job? It’s adapt-or-die time, people.

Climate change is killing us. The Houston floods of 2017 were intensified by warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico and stagnant upper-level winds too weak to blow Hurricane Harvey east. California’s recent Camp Fire raged with such fury in large part because of dry fuels that were made drier by rising temperatures and delays in seasonal rains. These compounding factors have been attributed—by our own government agencies—to human-caused climate change.

Given the spreading Armageddon, it’s time for Americans to reconsider where we live. Settling on coastlines subject to increasingly violent storms or in mountainous areas of the ever more wildfire-prone West makes no sense. Climate change is already forcing all kinds of animals, plants, and insects to make forced migrations. Across the globe, less well-off humans are also on the march, with a recent World Bank estimate predicting that more than 140 million people could be displaced by mid-century. It’s time for us to fuel up our SUVs and join the caravan.

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon. (Though Cal Fire’s Pimlott suggested that government should consider banning development in the most disaster-prone areas, telling the Associated Press, “If we don’t learn from what happened this year … then we’re certainly missing the real issue.”) If anything, Americans are moving to more inhospitable country—in droves. Lured by visions of sunrise paddleboard cruises and backdoor singletrack access, the once counterculture notion of living the Outside dream has become mainstream. According to researchers at Bozeman Montana’s Headwaters Economics, the fastest-growing residential areas in the country are in the wildland-urban interface in the West. The WUI, areas where flammable landscapes come into contact with residential communities, subdivisions, and towns, is now home to one-third of U.S. homes and roughly half of all western residents. In California alone, a 2014 study found that by the time this exurban trend flatlines, some 12 million acres will be developed and the number of homes built in very high-risk wildfire zones will increase by almost one million.

It’s the same deal along the coasts. Instead of leaving, we’re flocking. If there’s one obvious place to abandon after a climate-change-fueled natural disaster, it’s New Orleans, where some 254,000 residents fled in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina. Today, however, the city’s population is only 90,000 below its pre-storm high and growing steadily.  

We need large-scale manipulation of human settlements to better adapt to a more destructive climate.

So it seems that a future marked by increasing levels of carnage caused by cataclysmic hurricanes and megafires is unavoidable. But it’s not. We don’t have to suffer a major loss of life and property in every giant storm or blaze. Instead, we can fortify our communities to withstand these disasters through a combination of basic geological engineering (controlled burns and flood gates, not lofty projects like reflecting solar energy back into space) and traditional civil engineering (new infrastructure like roads and buildings). In other words, we need large-scale manipulation of human settlements to better adapt to a more destructive climate. Remarkably, at least when it comes to wildfires, this is both feasible and relatively affordable. To be clear, “there’s no silver bullet,” says Headwaters Economics’ Kimiko Barrett. But by updating building codes, thinning the woods around communities, and being smarter about which places we let burn (remote forests) and which we burn prescriptively (the grasslands and forests of the WUI), we can dramatically reduce the impact of wildfires across the West.

Humans, after all, are defined by the ability to adapt. “We live almost everywhere—that’s the key difference between us and other species,” says Crystal Kolden, an associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho and a former wildland firefighter. Nomadic peoples routinely burned the landscape. The Venetians built canals. The Swiss build avalanche fences. For a sharper analogy, Kolden points to California’s history with earthquakes. Nobody has kept track, but since the 7.7-magnitude earthquake that razed San Francisco and killed as many as 3,000 residents in 1906 (fires caused most of that destruction), Kolden estimates that trillions of dollars have been spent statewide shoring up infrastructure, buildings, and homes. The payoff? The 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which hit during a World Series game being played in Oakland, killed only 67. Earthquake magnitudes increase exponentially, so those aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons, but there’s no disputing that earthquake-compliant engineering has saved tens of thousands of lives over the past century.

On the East Coast, beachfront municipalities mitigate storm damage by fortifying beaches, routinely paying to have sand dredged up and redeposited in front of homes. According to a Western Carolina University database, that tactic has cost taxpayers $9 billion since 1923. The cost-effectiveness of the practice is debatable—many scientists would argue that it’s better to remove the homes—but engineered beaches do safeguard property (albeit for the rich). And while the U.S.’s massive engineering effort in New Orleans failed spectacularly during Katrina, such landscape-scale endeavors have worked for the Dutch, who many years ago committed to spending roughly a billion dollars a year to get it right. Closer to home, after a tornado leveled Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, the National Institute of Standards and Technology created new building codes for the city that officials hope will be adopted across Tornado Alley.

For the parched communities of the western U.S., the first serious studies of the use of fire-resistant materials and techniques in home construction and the design of defensible communities date to the 1990s, so the body of evidence is limited. Yet some landscape ecologists are optimistic about what they say is a vaccination-style approach to exurban fires. Currently, when one home ignites in a suburban-style neighborhood, it can start a domino effect. But if almost every structure is built or renovated according to fire-safety guidelines, it’s possible to create a modicum of the same kind of herd immunity that’s protected the world population from polio after a global vaccination campaign was launched in the late 1980s. 

What makes this approach most promising is the fact that it’s achievable. We’re talking asphalt, tile, or metal roofs, fireproof siding, and commonsense regulations like no cedar shingles, no junipers against the house, and no wood stored beneath the deck. In the longer term, fire-prone communities will need ample water stored on-site and multiple roads in and out for emergency vehicles and evacueees. A simple but vital fix involves installing screens over attic vents so embers don’t get sucked inside. Especially for lower- and fixed-income folk, the costs to update older homes aren’t negligible—government should help—but to meet wildfire-resistant fire codes for a new home, there’s no added cost.

There’s mounting evidence that these measures work. The 2017 Thomas Fire in Southern California was the largest in state history. (It was surpassed seven months later.) On December 16, embers driven by 60-mile-per-hour winds approached the wealthy town of Montecito. (As any fire scientist will tell you, airborne embers are the most common cause of fires in the suburbs. It’s exceedingly rare for a dramatic wall of flames to come charging down from the mountains.) The worst-case scenario, says Kolden, was that the town would lose 400 to 500 homes. Instead it lost seven. Kolden credits this in part to the fact that Montecito had fully embraced California’s fire codes. Homes were fortified. A fire break, where combustibles had been removed, encircled the town. Vegetation was cut back to create defensible spaces. And controlled fires were lit where the vegetation was removed—a crucial nuance. “It’s an upscale community with million-dollar homes, but what they did to protect themselves wasn’t expensive,” she says. “It provides a glimpse of what communities can do.” (Unfortunately, roughly a month after the fire, heavy rains created mudslides that barreled through burned areas and battered the town.)

We need to come to terms with the fact that those isolated dream homes tucked into a forest five miles up a dirt road in places like Montana and Colorado just aren’t defensible.

That’s what landscape manipulation looks like at the neighborhood level. As demonstrated by the devastation in Paradise, however, broader efforts are needed. The engineering there wasn’t to the scale of Montecito, but Paradise had taken steps to protect itself from a blaze. Yet, as Higuera readily points out, no two fires are ever the same. We’ll have to wait for the reports to explain why Paradise burned the way it did.

But here’s what we do know from the science. Those embers pouring into town from a backcountry conflagration? They can be reduced with smart thinning and cyclical controlled burning in the forest and scrublands immediately surrounding civilization. To do that, says Kolden, we’re all going to have to get used to breathing a lot more smoke. There are other steps: As Outside contributing editor Kyle Dickman recently reported, some firefighters believe that reducing ignition, especially by power lines, is a crucial next move. What we don’t need to waste our resources doing is fighting remote backcountry fires. And since nobody is going to commercially log the valueless scrub oak, dead chaparral, and small-diameter trees next to town, that’s where public dollars should be spent, says Barrett of Headwaters Economics. “Seventeen million acres, or about 4 percent of our forests, have received mechanical treatment”—meaning vegetation has been reduced—”in recent times,” she says. “But more than 100 million acres have burned. And with climate change, trying to manage and predict which forest is next is a guessing game.”

Moving forward, we should also heed Pimlott’s advice and think about banning developments in hard-to-defend terrain. (Some have specifically called out a planned 19,000-home development amid flame-loving chaparral outside Los Angeles.) And as hard as it is to accept, we need to come to terms with the fact that those isolated dream homes tucked into a forest five miles up a dirt road in places like Montana and Colorado just aren’t defensible. In fact, this is already happening in Montana, where the Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Council stated that it would no longer defend such homes.  

A helpful nudge might actually come from the much maligned insurance industry. Colorado’s insurance commissioner, Michael Conway, notes that insurers are raising premiums on WUI homes and getting far more diligent about requiring homeowners to adhere to certain safety measures before being allowed to buy insurance. “It’s not in our purview to tell people that they can’t move to certain areas,” says Conway, “but it is within our purview to make sure they pay enough to cover claims. It’s also in our our purview to educate them about the dangers of the WUI.”

Even if we fail to embrace fire-resistant engineering, at the very least we must commit to building additional roads out of WUI subdivisions so residents can flee. “The most flammable ecosystems are the Mediterranean zones in California,” says University of Montana fire ecologist Philip Higuera, referring to those parched chaparral grasslands that typically see almost no rain from May through October—or later still, these days, due to climate change. “To make them safe, they’ll have to do repeated large-scale modifications of those ecosystems. But no amount of vegetation tweaking will help some people. You can’t live in the woods and be fire safe.”

The truth is, we have a long way to go. Currently, California enforces codes to keep homes from burning in wildfires, but most of the West isn’t there yet (with the exception of a growing number of increasingly fire wise communities like Bend, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; and Flagstaff, Arizona). What we really need, says Higuera, whether through code enforcement or citizen initiatives, is that “higher order of planning” that begins with how neighborhoods are laid out, addresses home construction, and lets homeowner focus on the 100 feet around their homes while government agencies focuse on the vegetation around communities.

“No amount of treatment to the West as a whole is going to change regional patterns in area burned,” says Higuera. “But you can change that in your community. Cities and towns on earthquake fault zones have made the decision to do what it takes to live there safely. We’re going to have to invest and do a lot of planning for the WUI as well.”

Of course, some of this work would be easier if the world was taking big steps to address human-caused climate change. Unfortunately, we tend not to act until immediate dangers are on our doorstep, as they are now. We must start a wave of preparations for the new era of fires and floods. It’s adapt-or-die time.