Report: Sprawl could exacerbate wildfire danger |

Report: Sprawl could exacerbate wildfire danger

Jeff Munson and David Bunker

Major wildland blazes such as this summer’s Angora fire will become more common and more destructive if current growth patterns continue, according to a report released today by a consortium of environmental groups charged with protecting the Sierra Nevada.

The report by South Lake Tahoe-based Sierra Nevada Alliance, called “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. And the danger is costing taxpayers an estimated $1 billion a year to protect private homes from fire, according to the report.

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.

Unsafe growth patterns increasing fire danger

Homes scattered in remote, rugged locations are very difficult for firefighters to reach in time, safely evacuate residents, and defend 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 Alliance and 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.”

‘Fire-smart growth’ can save lives and money

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’s conclusions come as no surprise to North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw, who oversees firefighting efforts from Kings Beach to Tahoe’s West Shore. Whitelaw’s district is looking for approval from local residents to add property tax money into the district, precisely because of the cost and effort needed to protect thousands of homes that jut into the basin forest across North Tahoe.

“We used to be more of a structural firefighting district,” said Whitelaw. “Now, we are also a wildland firefighting district.”

Whitelaw also agrees with another conclusion of the report, that far-flung rural subdivisions are often much harder to defend from fire because of smaller roads, absent fire hydrants and low water flows.

“It’s not uncommon for these older water systems to be overwhelmed by firefighting demands,” Whitelaw said.

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