California needs to rethink its urban fire strategy

A wildfire in Wrightwood, California, in 2016. Image: Getty.

In October, we witnessed the wind-driven Tubbs fire blast its way through densely urbanised neighborhoods in Northern California, causing dozens of fatalities and thousands of home losses. This tragic event easily ranks as the most catastrophic fire in modern California history. Stories of how fast the fire spread and how little time people had to evacuate are stunning.

Despite how unusual the devastation appears, we need to recognise that these structure-to-structure “urban conflagrations” have happened in the past and will happen again. Yet these fires revealed that we have key gaps in our policy and planning related to assessing risk in fire-prone environments.

What is increasingly clear to fire researchers like me is that losses on the human side are often driven by where and how we build our communities. This means we must learn to coexist with fire, if we are going to inhabit fire-prone landscapes, just as we adapt to other natural hazards. An essential step is to shift our perspective from a focus on hazard to one that more comprehensively includes human vulnerabilities.

Mapping risk

California is leading the way in mapping the danger that wildfires pose to human communities and, in particular, linking building codes to fire severities that may be expected in given location. The state’s Fire Hazard Severity Zone maps are an essential step in recognising fire as an inevitable process that must be accommodated, similar to how we plan for floods, landslides, earthquakes and hurricanes.

What is missing from these maps, however, is extreme weather patterns. The Santa Ana winds of Southern California are a notable example. Strong, hot and dry wind episodes are associated with nearly all of our largest and most destructive wildfires, including the 1964 Hanley fire in Northern California that burned an almost identical footprint to the Tubbs fire, yet relatively little is currently known about how often they occur across a landscape.

 

Updating maps on fire risk should inform urban development. Image: Cal Fire/creative commons.

 

New methods are becoming available for mapping and modeling winds, and future versions of the Fire Hazard Severity Zone maps will therefore include such weather conditions. Similar maps are also needed for fire-prone areas outside California.

Despite technical advances, a key problem with most mapped approaches to fire danger is that the focus is almost exclusively on characterising the hazard – flame lengths, rates of spread or fire intensities of an oncoming wildfire – and much less on the vulnerabilities of what is actually exposed. The “wildland-urban interface,” where developed lands are exposed to natural, flammable areas, is thus often mapped and assumed to be where the exposure ends.

Clearly this is not always the case. Analogous to when a levee fails, after a wildfire manages to ignite homes along the wildland-urban interface, many homes farther inside the neighborhood can quickly become exposed.

Depending on the building codes in place during their construction, these newly exposed structures may or may not be very fire-resistant. Their vulnerability to ignition can also be especially high if they are spaced closely together and the winds are strong, because that is when fire spread transitions to a structure-to-structure domino effect.

Better fire risk mapping means we should be able refine our notion and approach to assessing vulnerability.

Reducing human exposure

There are numerous reports of how difficult and deadly it was to evacuate during the Tubbs fire. Apparently many people had almost no warning at all. This highlights the importance of both evacuation planning and evacuation communication systems, as getting out in time is what Americans tend to rely on in wildfire situations.

Although evacuation preparedness is nearly always mentioned in Community Wildfire Protection Plans and standard guidance for home owners, the overriding message is typically to “leave early” whenever possible.

While absolutely correct, this advice minimises the importance of pre-fire evacuation planning and the short time there may be to get out. It takes quite a bit of thought and effort to anticipate being in such a crisis situation.

What should one take, and where might one actually go?

On short notice, how does one account for pets, children or the elderly?

Is there a place one should retreat to, if evacuation orders are received too late or not at all?

This last question may be the one that gets the least attention, and the many fatalities in the Tubbs fire suggest that it requires much deeper consideration. Firefighters are often given specific training about what to do with limited evacuation options. For homeowners, however, guidance can be sparse.

When it is too late and too dangerous to evacuate safely, fallback options must be considered and communicated ahead of time. In an urban conflagration situation, local details dictate whether “safety zones” actually exist as places to take refuge. Given the real potential for such disasters, many communities should consider identifying (or building) key “hardened” structures to act as local-scale refuges.

Reducing human exposure involves more attention to what people must do during a wildfire, or even the rare urban conflagration. Safe evacuation deserves as much emphasis as reduction of fuels, such as creating defensible space around homes or larger scale fuel breaks by thinning vegetation around communities.


A safer built environment

From the scale of individual home construction up to the location and arrangement of development on a landscape, our communities should be better able to survive the natural hazards that occur there. This requires both short- and long-term strategies for achieving a safer built environment.

As a starting point, we must acknowledge that we currently have tens of thousands – possibly even hundreds of thousands – of homes constructed according to building codes that leave these structures vulnerable to ignition. Amazingly, however, there are very few examples of grant programs to mitigate such vulnerabilities through retrofit programs to, for instance, replace wood shake shingle roofs or to upgrade attic and crawlspace vents to block embers from entering homes.

In contrast, there are millions of dollars in public funds spent annually on community-scale fuel reduction projects. These are common activities pursued by Fire Safe Councils in California and similar organisations in other states.

The same level of support should be available for mitigation of fire-related structure vulnerabilities as there is for hazards.

Over the long term, land use planning is probably the most effective tool available for creating safer communities. We must be more deliberate about how we develop on fire-prone landscapes, taking advantage of emerging hazard-mapping techniques.

The goal here is not necessarily to build fewer homes, but to design and site developments that avoid the highest hazard regions and concentrate development in the lowest hazard areas. This logic applies, to varying degrees, to constraining development with respect to other natural hazards.

Despite an aversion by some to land use planning, this strategy is simply common sense. It will also save lives and massive amounts of public resources over the long term.

Where we do choose to develop and inhabit hazard-prone environments, it may be necessary to design communities with “passive survivability” in mind, or the ability to withstand the event and have water and power for a few days. This provides both the built environment and the people within some basic protection for a limited time.

The ConversationStrategies exist to lower the risk of fire in the current housing stock and to more carefully design and site future development where wildfires are possible. With increasing extremes expected as climate continues to change, officially recognising this link and creating a safer built environment will only become more urgent.

Max Moritz, Cooperative Extension Specialist, Wildland Fire, University of California, Berkeley.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.