LOS ANGELES— As California lawmakers consider a bill that would limit sprawl development in blaze-prone areas, a new report highlights how rampant construction in high fire-risk wildlands is putting more people in harm’s way and contributing to a dramatic increase in costs associated with fire suppression and damages.
Built to Burn, released today by the Center for Biological Diversity, notes that if current land-use practices continue, between 640,000 and 1.2 million new homes could be built in the state’s highest wildfire-risk areas by 2050. Nearly all contemporary wildfires in California are caused by human sources such as power lines and electrical equipment, and development increases that threat.
“Sprawl development in California’s blaze-prone wildlands increases ignition risk, puts more people in danger and harms ecosystems and wildlife,” said Tiffany Yap, a senior scientist at the Center. “After last year’s devastating fires, state lawmakers need to take a hard look at the science and take strong action on construction in high fire-risk areas.”
Costs in areas managed by Cal Fire were $23 billion during the 2015-2018 fire seasons — more than double the wildfire cost for the previous 26 years combined after adjusting for inflation. Fifteen of the 20 most destructive California wildfires have occurred in the past five years.
Since 2015 almost 200 people in the state have been killed in wildfires, more than 50,000 structures have burned down, hundreds of thousands have had to evacuate their homes and endure power outages, and millions have been exposed to unhealthy levels of smoke and air pollution.
Today’s report notes that local officials continue to greenlight massive new developments offering mostly mid- to high-income homes in areas that have repeatedly burned in wildfires. For example, multiple wildfires have occurred on the project site for the 3,150-home Northlake development approved by L.A. County in 2019, and several wildfires have burned on the site for the 3,000-home Otay Village developments approved by San Diego County in 2019 and 2020.
“When local officials approve more development in fire-prone areas instead of focusing on increasing affordable housing near city centers, we all pay the price,” said Yap. “Californians suffer from unsustainable firefighting and recovery costs, degraded ecosystems and smoky air. And firefighters literally put their bodies on the line when these developments are threatened by wildfire.”
Wildfires are a natural and necessary process in many of California’s ecosystems. But in California chapparal and sage scrub ecosystems, increasing fire frequency due to development is converting these shrublands into non-native grasses that burn more easily, leading to a dangerous “feedback loop” of increasing fire and degraded ecosystems.
In addition to the economic damage and human loss of life caused by fires, wildlife is also harmed. Unnaturally frequent wildfire in native shrublands can harm vulnerable native species already reeling from the impacts of habitat loss and fragmentation. Several Southern California mountain lions in the genetically compromised Santa Monica and Santa Ana populations have died in recent wildfires because they were unable to escape to safety due to surrounding roads and development. And post-fire landslides threaten already-imperiled amphibians and fish, such as the mountain yellow-legged frog and unarmored threespine stickleback.
State Sen. Stern recently introduced Senate Bill 55 to help keep Californians safer from wildfire. The bill would prohibit new development that would increase ignition risks in very high fire-hazard severity zones and state responsibility areas.