For years, state officials have promised and failed to update maps showing parts of California most at risk from wildfires. In the more than a dozen years since the publication of current maps, climate change and climate science have dramatically altered our understanding of what could burn.
Now state officials say the long-awaited updates will arrive in the coming months.
The stakes of the new fire risk maps are high. Local governments use CalFire’s danger zones as a guide in deciding where new homes and businesses should be approved – or rejected.
Homeowners who live in high risk areas should disclose this risk when deciding to sell. They are also required by a new state law to keep their homes fireproof – by building a defensible space.
The number of outbreaks in these high-risk areas has increased over the past decade. The state’s wildfires now regularly set records for size and destruction. “The fires are burning in a way no one has seen before,” CalFire chief Thom Porter said at a press conference in August. “Yeah, I keep saying it. You keep hearing this. But it is absolutely true.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection last updated its fire hazard severity zone maps in 2007, long before recent record mega-fires swept through California. Past mapping has focused on geographic hazards such as forests and canyons where fire spreads, according to Daniel Berlant, deputy deputy director of CalFire. This time, climatic hazards are in the foreground.
“What has changed,” added Berlant, “are these extreme wind events, which carry the embers now well beyond that outer edge. [where development intersects with wildlands] in areas that historically were not even designated with a level of fire risk.
The maps, which cover all 58 counties, have three color-coded designations: yellow for moderate fire risk, orange for high risk, and red for very high risk. This time around, CalFire says those areas are likely to be bigger, welcoming more Californians and more areas where homes and wilderness meet.
In Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs fire caused widespread city damage, owner Brian Fies is anxiously awaiting new maps from CalFire. Fies’ house burned down completely in 2017, and he wrote a memoir about his loss titled A Fire Story. Eventually he rebuilt on the same land.
“Climate change makes risk a moving target,” Fies said. “Places that were once safe are no longer safe, and firefighters need to understand and reflect this change. ”
The new cards will have a big impact
Local governments use CalFire Hazardous Areas to help decide where new homes and businesses should be approved. Inside these areas, developers must follow the state’s stringent and more expensive fire safety rules, known as the 7A codes.
These codes require:
- Wider roads, more access to water supply and more road and directional signs;
- More expensive materials for building new homes, including walls, roofs and eaves that can withstand flying embers and heat from fire;
- Clear 100 feet of defensible space around buildings; and
- Disclosure that a property is in a fire zone when sold.
Local governments have argued that expanding risk areas will make it more difficult to meet the state’s goals for new affordable housing, said Staci Heaton, regulatory affairs advocate with rural California county officials.
“The state says [counties] they have to build so many homes a year, ”she said. “Even in high fire risk areas, they have to find that balance between fire mitigation and building these low income housing units.”
For homeowners in risky areas, Heaton argued that life is likely more difficult. Homes in risky areas are more likely to lose their electricity when the wind picks up, she says, as utility companies can target their neighborhoods for planned power outages.
And Heaton expects some homeowners may find their homes uninsurable.
“Once these fire cards are finalized, I think we’re going to see a lot more non-renewals,” she said. “We are already seeing a lot of home insurance non-renewals in our communities. ”
“We want science to be fair”
CalFire officials say they are focusing on precision, not politics, in plotting the new danger zones, which were slated for 2020.
“We want the science to be correct,” Berlant said. “Unfortunately, building this science into a model has taken us a lot longer than we originally anticipated.”
The update will incorporate extreme weather models that did not exist when current maps were developed almost two decades ago.
But critics like Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit environmental group, say CalFire has long had the ability to make maps more accurate and relevant.
“To have [the old maps] always hanging out is pretty inexcusable, ”he said.
Halsey added that the existing maps are both outdated and imperfect.
In Santa Rosa, the Tubbs fire burned down the Fountaingrove neighborhood, as did the Hanly fire in 1964, and a fire before that in 1908.
“This is what is so tragic: This area has burned twice before, virtually in the same footprint over the past 100 years,” said Halsey. “And why this story was not included in the fire severity maps is a mystery to me. ”
According to data provided by CalFire, approximately 95% of structures severely damaged in California wildfires from 2013 to 2020 occurred inside federal, state, or local fire risk zones. Dave Sapsis, CalFire’s forest fire scientist in charge of maps, points out that state hazard maps have been shown to be very accurate in predicting where structures would burn in recent California wildfires.
But he also conceded that the Santa Rosa map should have better integrated the risk of historical burn. “Our existing model currently works almost all the time, except when it doesn’t,” Sapsis said. “And that was a pretty big dud.”
To complicate matters for the public, CalFire maps only show state fire danger zones and some local danger zones, but not those designated by the federal government.
Due to climate change, CalFire’s Sapsis plans to update risk maps more often in the future.
“This danger increases over time,” Sapsis explained. “The fire environment is getting worse. It is increasingly drier, there is more and more wind.
Berlant, deputy deputy director of CalFire, said the agency would release the new maps to county governments “early next year.”
In Santa Rosa, owner Brian Fies said state and local governments should put the card in every mailbox.
“In my opinion, they should push him,” Fies said. “Not just passively provided, not just available on, you know, page 312 of the county website, but they should be pushing it.”
The neighborhood of Fies was not in a high risk area on the CalFire map when it was rebuilt. But he’s worried what the updated maps might reveal.
“It seems like nowhere in the western half of North America is there a more secure place,” Fies added. “It’s difficult, even in the suburbs.