Climate Change in the West is Real, Right Now – Part 2 – YubaNet
LET’S BUILD OUR HOMES LESS FLAMMABLE. CALIFORNIA LEADS THE NATION IN THIS AREA.
CK: A zone [of fire mitigation] we take a close look at his hardening at home. It means building our homes to be less flammable. California leads the country in this area. We are the only state to have construction-specific building codes in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). It turns out that when people follow these codes, which were put in place in 2006, known as the 7A building code, which applies to new construction and major renovations, their homes are much safer. However, this is only a small fraction of our housing stock. More than 99% of California homes that fall under the WUI are not affected by this building code. One guess would be that the maximum number of housing units built to this code would be less than one million from around 25 million as the base number for the housing stock.
One area we need to figure out is how to reinforce homes that are in the highest risk areas and unfortunately some of the highest risk homes are owned by people who just can’t afford to make it big -thing. of the remodeling suggested by these codes. Upgrading in terms of materials is not going to significantly increase the equity in your home. Switching from wood siding to fiber cement siding will add less equity than adding marble kitchen countertops. It is a problem. Many WUI areas are full of low-income homes, such as mobile homes, which are essentially tinder. It’s not like people who live in mobile homes can afford to build a fireproof house.
DB: This raises the question of a social need for affordable housing which is being met by the creation of mobile home parks, mostly occupied by low-income seniors. This means that we are placing some of the most at-risk members of our society in what is one of the most vulnerable housing conditions. Is it possible to consider other less flammable affordable housing alternatives?
CK: Two critical things we need to do here to revise building codes: eliminate exclusions and loopholes. Are there also ways to rethink how we might fund more universal change that addresses some social justice issues?
For example, we live in the Sierra Nevada. We have a relatively low risk of damage from an earthquake. However, because we live in this state, it is the law that gives us insurance against earthquakes. Seismic codes are not limited by seismic zones as to where the code should be applied. Every home built in the State of California must comply with earthquake codes. It’s a legacy of 1906 and how seismic codes evolved. However, there are huge parts of the state that are absolutely flammable but currently do not fall under WUI due to how the feds have mandated these policies and how the map is demarcated across the West. A good example of the problem is that many of the most catastrophic fires, such as the Paradise fire, include the urban center of the city. If it is an urban core, it is not considered part of the EUI. This is true for most communities in the Sierra Nevada. It is a loophole that we will see again and again. One of the most egregious examples would be the Tubbs fire that burned down Coffey Park. Coffey Park is over 2 miles from anything that would be considered WUI. More than 1000 houses were destroyed in this fire. Yet when they started rebuilding, not every home had to be rebuilt to the highest building standards. We are preparing for repeated disasters in places like this.
We could revise building codes so that, just as we do for earthquakes, every home built in the state is built to withstand earthquakes and wildfires.
We have the technology and the engineering to do it. We don’t do it because it’s about profit for the construction industry. There is a lack of incentive in the building or insurance industry to build a fire resistant home. These are all related issues. We find that the construction industry wants to keep construction costs low to maximize profits and that the insurance industry does not reward people who do the right thing or who impose requirements for reconstruction.
DB: I see people in such fear of fire that they clear their properties of all the trees. This appears to amplify climate impacts, as trees protect soil and retain water while providing many benefits, including cooling the home in a much hotter climate, which reduces energy demand. Can you comment on that?
CK: It is fear that drives people to cut down trees, not just underbrush. It is also the fear of agencies and insurers who advocate these very simplistic solutions.
Agencies tend to try to get people to take action. If we can only get people to remember three words, it’s get rid of your property. And that doesn’t match my thinking at all. The natural state of this landscape is not so. Oaks are not flammable like many other trees. You can see oak trees withstanding the fire, and in fact many firefighters consider oak trees as fire breaks, they call them ember catchers because the embers fall into them, fail to catch the burning tree and prevent the fire from spreading.
We live about 2700 feet up so it’s mostly oak forests and a few pines near where I live. We have cut down nearly all of the pines that are diseased or dying of drought, however, our blue and black oaks are drought resistant and healthy. We pruned these trees and cut the mistletoe and we burn under them to reduce brush. I have good clearance between my oak trees and my tiled roof and metal gutters and these oak trees give a tremendous amount of shade and reduce heat and cooling.
These oaks would also serve to protect our house from fire as they do not burn easily. They are beautiful, tall, healthy trees and so are some of my pines. Even eucalyptus can be managed in a way that provides shade, keeps water in the soil, and supports various microclimates and basically helps cool the landscape.
Prune trees and keep the ground clear. Taking and keeping the area clear and limbing trees so that there is space with the tree canopy is a safe practice. Trees are ecologically important because they help maintain lower temperatures and retain moisture closer to the surface, while offsetting utility needs. But that’s a lot of nuance.
Grazing and the return of beavers to waterways are unconventional and very impactful solutions. Beavers are amazing firefighters. The key is that beavers build dams and create massive amounts of moisture and open water that fire cannot touch. There are brilliant scientists, like Ben Goldfarb, who are dedicated solely to this research.
We can build on natural solutions and amplify those solutions and scale them through engineering and technology.
I am often asked if we cannot solve this fire problem with technology. My answer is still yes, but not the way you think. It will not be about predicting fires and sending drones to fight them, which technologists imagine as a solution. Instead, we can build on natural solutions and amplify those solutions and scale them through engineering and technology.
We already know what works, but we need to make it work quickly and at scale and take into account that these landscapes are much more complex today than they were a few hundred years ago. This is where technology and engineering can help us develop these natural solutions.
DB: There are remote places that have been successfully zoned for zero construction, such as the Sierra County area above Pike. Basically, people create fire, so by prohibiting people or utilities from going into extremely remote forests, we can preserve the forest as working forest land and protect people from harm.
CK: Are we starting to talk about how we protect homes? If you build in the village, we will protect your home, but if you choose to live in a rural area, you are choosing not to be defended against fire. These are the types of fires that firefighters can die defending. If you choose to live outside the village, you should not expect fire protection.
In the next story, we’ll look at ways to move from fire suppression to fire mitigation.
This is part two of a four-part article series based on interviews with pyrogeographer Crystal Kolden.
UC Merced assistant professor Crystal Kolden has spent years researching possible solutions to wildfires, including a wide range of surprising mitigation practices. His long career includes work as a firefighter, fire ecologist and researcher. Kolden is uniquely qualified to comment on matters relating to fire ecology and fire mitigation. She is a certified fire ecologist with the Association of Fire Ecology. Kolden holds a doctorate in geography.
I recently interviewed Kolden who provided in-depth solutions to some of the most troublesome wildfire issues in this time of growing climate change impacts. These solutions are presented in four articles, each presenting mitigation solutions ranging from personal options to far-reaching policies for social good. These interviews were facilitated by Bioneers.org
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