Report: Growth in Sierra puts more homes and lives at risk for catastrophic fire
Major wildland blazes like the Angora fire in June will become more common and more destructive if current growth patterns continue, according to a report released today by the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
The report “Dangerous Development: Wildfire and Rural Sprawl in the Sierra Nevada” found that between 1990 and 2000, the number of people living in extreme or very high fire threat areas of the Sierra increased by 16 percent.
The Alliance released the results of two years of research documenting what it says are sprawling patterns of growth in the Sierra that are more expensive and dangerous to protect from wildfire.
As the Sierra continues to grow, the trend of more development in wildfire-hazard areas will continue, the report states. The alliance estimates the population of Sierra Nevada communities will triple by 2040. The report concludes 94 percent of the land slated for residential development is in areas considered “extreme” or “very high” fire threat.
When homes are scattered in remote, rugged locations, it is very difficult for firefighters to reach those homes in time, safely evacuate residents, and defend the homes from approaching wildfire, the report states. Roads are often too narrow for fire trucks to navigate, and there are no fire hydrants or other sources of water for firefighters to use. There is often more flammable vegetation in these sprawling, remote areas, making it easier for fires to get out of control and threaten the lives of residents and firefighters, according to the report.
“Every day we are building new houses in extremely dangerous parts of California and the Sierra,’ said Autumn Bernstein, land use coordinator for the South Lake Tahoe-based Sierra Nevada Alliance and the author of the report. “This should be a wake-up call that destructive wildfires like the recent Angora fire in Lake Tahoe will become more common, unless we all start working together to plan ‘fire-smart’ communities.”
In contrast, denser patterns of development, like those in historic downtown Truckee, Nevada City or Quincy, are safer and cheaper to defend from wildfire. The report demonstrates that these historic communities have a smaller perimeter to defend against an approaching wildfire. Homes are clustered together rather than spread apart, so firefighters can defend many homes at once, the report states. Because there are better roads and centralized water systems, firefighters can more quickly reach fires approaching homes and put them out before they can ignite homes.
“Communities already face huge challenges when it comes to preventing catastrophic wildfire,” said Jay Watson, board member of the California Fire Safe Council. “Developers and local officials need to carefully consider risks to residents and firefighters when deciding where and how our communities grow.”
Clustered development also makes it cheaper and easier to reduce fuels in the surrounding wildlands. When homes are clustered together, the number of acres that need vegetation management to reduce fire danger is dramatically lower than in the case of scattered, low-density development, according to the report.
“We can’t afford to keep growing in unsafe patterns,” said John Pickett, Tahoe Basin Coordinator for the Nevada Fire Safe Council. “As the Sierra grows, we should focus on infill development that will keep our communities safer from wildfire.”
The report recommends that counties and cities in California and the Sierra should focus on fire-smart growth strategies by doing the following:
Focusing new development within existing communities can help minimize new fire danger. Counties and cities should identify infill sites such as vacant lots, empty warehouses and old railroad yards and channel new growth into those sites. A good example of this type of development is the Truckee Railyard project, which will add new houses on a vacant railyard in downtown Truckee.
When there is no more room for infill development, communities should grow outward in a compact and orderly fashion, building new neighborhoods that mirror the historic, compact design of the older community.
Counties and cities should restrict sprawling, low-density growth and leapfrog subdivisions that encroach into wildland areas and increase wildfire danger.
“We can build thriving communities that are safer and sustainable, by practicing ‘fire-smart growth,” said Bernstein. “Or we can continue to build in dangerous patterns, and face more tragedies every fire season to come. The choice is ours.”
For a copy of the full report, visit the Sierra Nevada Alliance Web site after today at: http://www.sierranevadaalliance.org