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.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.