California’s record-breaking Thomas Fire should teach us to build more resilient cities

California’s record-breaking Thomas Fire should teach us to build more resilient cities
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Ash is everywhere, because Southern California is on fire. In December, no less. During what should be its rainy season, the region instead is witnessing an unprecedented number of hot days, strong winds and low humidity. Perfect conditions for fires, especially after seven years of climate-driven, bone-dry drought. 

The largest of the current conflagrations, the Thomas, has already scorched an astonishing 273,000 acres — and is poised to become California’s largest wildfire on record. Its fiery run is a painful reminder that extreme weather events have no particular target and that everyone in the path of a fire is at risk. 

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Yet our shared pain should also compel us to recognize our collective responsibility to face a pressing, evidence-based reality. The planet is warming. The climate is changing. And it is way past time for us to begin to plan for how to adapt to and mitigate the ramifications of these unsettling realities.

 

The smoke-filled skies over Southern California make that need crystal clear. Climate change has contributed to the state’s growing number of large fires as well as these blazes’destructiveness and the increasing area of land consumed.

It also accounts for the lengthening of the Western wildfire season, from five months in the 1970s to an estimated seven months today. This data, Scientists have observed, is linked to climate-fueled drought and helps explain the Thomas fire’s furious growth from zero to 31,000 acres in a mere 12 hours.

However devastating, the Thomas Fire is not the only record-shattering disaster in 2017. It comes on the heels of a series of other unprecedented extreme weather events — Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, along with the monster, late summer fires in Napa and Sonoma counties. Each of these disasters brought a devastating loss of life, the wholesale destruction of property, and massive recovery costs. Each serves a climate-change signal flare. 

However distressful the aftermath of fire and flood, these signals can help galvanize local politicians, policymakers, and citizens to build smarter and more resilient communities in the nation’s disaster zones. Indeed, Southern California could mimic some of the protective actions that cities located in Texas’ flash-flood alley have adopted.

Floods, for example, have ravaged San Antonio for centuries. Until the 1990s, the Alamo City poured millions of dollars (and vast quantities of concrete) into the construction of an expanding network of dams, tunnels, channels and related infrastructure.

It still flooded.

In response, the community embraced an innovative policy, using flood-control bond funds to purchase homes built within the local floodplains.

Once removed, the open space has been absorbed into a system of linear parks that offers hike-and-bike trails and other recreational opportunities. Nature, once viewed as a threat to be contained, is now seen as an integral part of the built landscape.

This same kind of thoughtful vision and proactive policies could be adopted in California’s fire zones. The first step will be the most difficult: local planning boards and zoning commissions must alter their decades-long practice of green lighting every housing development in every canyon, foothill, and ridgetop. It is precisely these subdivisions that burned in Northern and Southern California this year — and that have been incinerated in the past and will in the future.

The second step follows from the first. Each town and city, in collaboration with their home counties, should develop fire zone maps and determine the number of buildable lots and houses that currently lie within these zones. They can then do what San Antonio and other flood-wracked cities have done: bring before the voters a series of “fire-control” bond issues.

The bond monies then could be used to purchase as-yet unbuilt acreage; or, post-fire, buy damaged property from willing sellers.

Well managed, these public lands could extend the buffer zone available for housing developments downhill and provide much-needed recreational space for park-starved Angelenos.

The costs would be steep, given Southern California’s red-hot real-estate market. But so too is the escalating price tag associated with climate-fueled, year-round fires that have blackened millions of acres, burned countless homes and businesses, and forced tens of thousands of Californians to flee before advancing walls of fire.

Given that these associated costs, hazards, and risks are predicted to intensify throughout the 21st Century, now is time for creative thinking, for proactive engagement at the local and state levels.

Let’s use the Thomas Fire to help us rise out of the ashes.

Char Miller is a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College and author of “Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream” and “America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands.”