It’s a hot day in Ukiah in mid-June, with temperatures in the mid-90s, and fire crews are chainsawing and bulldozing their way through thick trees and brush, racing to reduce the dangerous combustibles.
Crews in this rural area north of San Francisco have done this kind of fuel reduction in past years, yet not at this pace, nor with this much public and political support. The work they’re doing — clearing and thinning 100-ft. wide swaths of land to help hold back flames — is one of 35 projects fast-tracked by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has made wildfires a high-profile focus since taking office in January. Locals are on board, too: This project cuts through hundreds of parcels of privately owned land. Getting permission to access residents’ property used to take convincing, says Ukiah battalion chief Michael Maynard. “Now it’s like carte blanche,” he says. “Do whatever you want.”
This rare confluence of will has come in the wake of the most destructive fires in California’s history. More than 145 people died in wildfires during 2017 and 2018 as flames devoured tens of thousands of homes and businesses. In many parts of the state, it seems like everyone knows someone who lost everything. And all this tragedy has spawned a flurry of efforts, from billion-dollar bills in Sacramento to fire-focused hackathons, to better prevent and suppress fires. As a result, experts say, California is more prepared for the dangers that summer’s hotter, drier weather will bring. “I’ve never seen the state focus on fire in the way that it has lately,” says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been in the field for 28 years.
There is far more to be done, and outsized risk remains. Millions of dead and dying trees are still waiting to be culled. Many Californians still live in wooded areas with few ways out and don’t want to uproot their lives to move to less fire-prone places. All told, more than 25 million acres of California are classified as under very high or extreme fire threat, covering more than half the state. Heavy rains have also spurred the growth of grass that will eventually dry out and become fuel. And while there’s hope that the wet weather portends a calmer fire season in 2019, there is also fear that it will lead to complacency at a time when continued dedication to preventive measures is needed.
“Unfortunately,” says Maynard, “a couple of slow fire seasons and it’s not the hot topic.”
By this time last year, firefighters in California had already dealt with 2,615 ignitions that had burned nearly 150,000 acres. So far, 2019 has seen far fewer fires and a fraction of the acreage burned. But such statistics did little to quell anxiety when a heat wave hit in June and a red-flag warning went out, warning fire departments and residents that conditions were ripe for conflagrations.
Millions of Californians who have choked on smoky air are quick to worry. Many never stopped. “We’re still in fight-or-flight,” says Patty Garrison, one of thousands who lost their homes when the Camp Fire ravaged the town of Paradise and killed 85 people last year. Some residents now have police scanners to ensure they’re up-to-date on which way a fire might be headed. Others have added a healthy dose of paranoia to their daily habits. “A spark is all it takes,” says David Wright, a Ukiah resident who now packs his cigarette butts into his pants pocket after he puts them out.
There is some solace in the fact that powerful players are on high alert, too.
With the height of fire season arriving — traditionally this has been in July, though parts of the state see fires year-round now due in part to climate change — the state’s fire department, Cal Fire, is preparing for the worst. Aircraft have undergone maintenance and are ready to fly. Engines are staffed and seasonal firefighters are coming on board. Thanks to additional fire crews and National Guard troops who have been deployed to work on fuel reduction, their numbers are larger than last year. Cal Fire is anticipating yet more resources — including new helicopters, engines and firefighters — that the governor has budgeted for. The prospect has boosted morale among overworked responders. “Are we excited? Heavens yes,” says Scott McClean, a spokesperson for Cal Fire.
PG&E, the embattled utility whose electrical transmission lines have been blamed by state officials for starting the Camp Fire, is being more proactive in cutting power during dangerous weather conditions. Despite concerns about how sudden outages could affect some residents, including the disabled, PG&E has warned 5.4 million customers to be prepared for shutoffs, far more than the thousands living in areas where the utility company was prepared to cut power last year. The first of this season’s shutoffs occurred during the June heat wave, including in the county where Paradise is located. “It freaks everybody out,” says Garrison, who is suing PG&E for negligence but who, nonetheless, has nothing negative to say about this “hyper-alert” practice.
There is also momentum emanating from Silicon Valley, where there is, inevitably, belief that technology will help solve this problem. Earlier this year, IBM hosted a hackathon where about 200 people brainstormed solutions for combating fires. One of them was Roy Stahl, a programmer who lost his home to a wildfire in 2015. His team came up with a device firefighters could wear to monitor their exposure to dangerous emissions. “The fires, they’re insane. They roar like an engine,” Stahl says. “Technology isn’t going to stand in the way of a wildfire, but if it can help us predict them, if it can help us manage them … it can help.”
All this activity misses one of the most important factors that has left Californians vulnerable to flames: where and how people are building, particularly as they seek a more bucolic life in places that press up against wilderness. Some experts argue that it’s the most important issue. “We placed fire-prone houses in fire-prone areas,” says Christopher Dicus, a fire ecologist at California Polytechnic State University. “And we all look around and act surprised when these devastating fires happen. It’s just physics.”
There is some evidence that this lesson is sinking in. A recent poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that three quarters of Californians believe the state should limit home building in areas at high risk of wildfires. Some people who already live in such places are showing willingness to sacrifice privacy and aesthetics for safety. In Ukiah, Maynard points to a local resident who cut down her favorite tree this year because she realized the danger it posed to her home and an adjacent public road. Others who lost homes in such places are considering a move. Garrison, for one, says that she and her husband are thinking about leaving the state even though they’d be leaving children and grandchildren behind. She used to see beauty in forested areas. “Now,” she says, “it looks like a place you’re going to be surrounded by fire with one way out.”
But many people still can’t bring themselves to leave. Stahl, the programmer, and his wife chose to rebuild a home on the same rural spot north of San Francisco where the Valley Fire swallowed their house and possessions in 2015, even though they know “that means you’re staying in a zone where there’s fires coming at you in the future.” They did take additional precautions this time: installing a metal roof instead of shingles and even buying sheep to keep flammable ground vegetation in check. Yet the idea of leaving the pastoral lure of their 5,000-person hamlet for relative safety of the Bay Area was too much. “It was a personal decision, not an easy decision,” Stahl says. “We didn’t want to go back and live in suburbia. We liked where we were.”
For all his gusto on the issue of wildfires, this appears to be an issue that Gov. Newsom, like many politicians, is unwilling to touch. When asked earlier this year if the government should ban home-building in highly flammable areas, he rejected the idea, citing the “pioneering spirit” of the Californian people. And though it’s clear that stricter regulations can mitigate the problem — an analysis found that homes in Paradise that were built after 2008 were far more likely to have escaped damage in the Camp Fire than those built before, thanks to stricter state building codes — wildfire-stricken cities have been loathe to harden their local rules.
In Santa Rosa, for example, where the Tubbs Fire wiped out whole neighborhoods in 2017, officials have put more effort into waiving regulations than coming up with new ones as people rebuild. “There is definitely a balancing act,” says Gabe Osburn, deputy director of development services for the city. On the one hand, officials have tried to encourage residents to be more thoughtful about issues like defensible space — making sure that their homes aren’t surrounded by flammable furniture and plants — but residents who are rebuilding are already suffering, emotionally and financially. Many are trying to adhere to deadlines and dollar amounts set by insurance companies, and adding new rules to an already arduous process “would add another level of stress,” Osburn says.
Drastic changes might even delay or deter people from rebuilding at all, which cuts into a city’s tax base. State lawmaker Jim Wood tried to bridge this gap by proposing a bill that would provide $1 billion in low-interest loans to help people rebuild and retrofit with fires in mind. As it moved through the legislature, Wood was forced to remove the promise of a particular dollar figure in order to get it passed, but the bill is still live, and there’s support “for the concept,” an aide says. Wood is “trying to find funds.”
Dicus, the forest ecologist, visited Santa Rosa recently. He said it was heartwarming, even exciting, to see people moving back into homes in devastated neighborhoods like Coffey Park. “Simultaneously, I was pulling out my hair, because I was seeing things like redwood fences being attached right back to the same houses that had just burned down,” he says. Redwood fences are pretty and cheap and common in California. In his eyes, compared to fences made of metal or rock, they’re also “a wick that’s leading right into the building.”
How a fire spreads — and how deadly it is — hinges as much on human behavior as on how many engines are in the field. While state agencies like Cal Fire can’t pass zoning laws that govern where people are allowed to live, they have been ramping up their educational efforts, trying to take advantage of people’s attention while they have it.
Maynard, like many of his colleagues, has been meeting with neighborhood groups and local councils each week. The demand, he says, far exceeds past years. “My phone rings off the hook with people wanting me to come share what I know,” he says. And he’s happy to deliver his message to the people of Ukiah: “Don’t wait for us to come tell you what to do.” When there’s a fire, tune into the news, have a bag of possessions packed, and leave early — especially if you’re elderly. “You have to be responsible for yourself,” he says, “your own safety.”
Officials are doing their best to channel both encouragement and fatalism as they brace for triple-digit temperatures this year, making it clear that there’s far more people can be doing to be safe, even if the fires never stop coming. Thom Porter, the new head of Cal Fire, struck this tone as he recently unveiled the centerpiece of the agency’s educational push: the state’s new safety mascot, a friendly mountain lion named Captain Cal.
“You will learn from Cal what it takes to be a Californian,” Porter told children who had gathered outside the state capitol for the reveal. The big cat will teach them about how to safely enjoy fireworks and BBQs and how to always be prepared. He’ll impart harder lessons, too. “You will understand,” Porter said, “that every year is a bad year in California for wildfires.”