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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.