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As wildfire risks grow, so do calls for California housing construction reform

by Louis Hansen, San Jose Mercury News |

As California’s wildfire season grows longer and more devastating blazes sweep through communities, researchers say the state must overhaul its development policies and community rebuilding efforts or risk greater tragedy and loss of lives.

State development policies have encouraged communities to rebuild in fire-prone regions, leading to more potential destruction and higher reconstruction and insurance costs, University of California researchers concluded in a report released Thursday. Researchers studied the recovery efforts in the fire-decimated communities of Santa Rosa, Paradise and Ventura.

Wildfire risks are growing: Nearly 10 percent of Californians live in high-risk fire zones, and the seven most destructive blazes on record have come since 2017. Researchers say it could cost at least $610 billion to replace homes in the high-risk zones.

The report, funded by nonpartisan think tank Next 10, calls for adopting policies that would discourage development in fire-prone areas and increase spending on fire planning and on eliminating hazards such as overgrown vegetation.

“We saw that the climate crisis and the housing crisis were converging,” said Berkeley professor Karen Chapple, director of the Center for Community Innovation. “These issues need to be considered together.”

The report echoes conversations and public hearings in city halls and the state capitol as policy makers grapple with climate change extending the wildfire season and escalating the costs of insuring and rebuilding communities. “It’s about people’s lives, their livelihoods and their futures,” said Next 10 founder Noel Perry.

Insurance payouts have risen dramatically: Between 2011 and 2018, insurers paid about $4 billion annually to cover wildfire losses, but the recent fire seasons have resulted in $26 billion in claims paid to homeowners, researchers found. More than 1 in 12 California homes are located in high fire danger zones, and more than a half-million new homes could be built in these areas under current California rules.

Berkeley researchers studied the aftermath of the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise.

They considered three general approaches to redevelopment: rebuilding in the same place; a managed retreat with fewer new homes going into high-risk zones; and rebuilding smaller, more dense clusters of homes with better defensible space from spreading blazes.

Chapple said each approach carried benefits and risks, but reducing encroachment should be a primary goal.

Building small “resilience nodes” of clustered, defensible housing in high-risk areas offers the most potential for economic growth but also placed people in harm’s way. The managed retreat approach would cut the number of homes rebuilt in Santa Rosa and Ventura in half while also pressuring nearby communities to take in displaced residents. Rebuilding in place kept more of the communities in tact but still carried fire risks.

The calls for change have been spurred by the state’s deadly, record-breaking fires since 2017.

In Oakland, planners recently considered banning new accessory dwelling units in the Oakland hills, citing the risk of adding more residents to a fire-prone area with few routes for emergency evacuations.

State insurance commissioner Ricardo Lara last week backed a broad range of proposals to slow state spending on infrastructure in high-hazard zones, enhance building codes and change regulations on catastrophic insurance coverage.

A state-ordered moratorium on insurance cancellations enacted in 2019 and extended last year has required insurers to continue coverage for 2 million homeowners living near the recent disasters.

State senators released a legislative package last month to bolster California’s response to blazes, improve forest management, assist homeowners in getting fire insurance and update building codes to make communities more fire resistant.

One proposal, SB 12, would overhaul safety guidelines for developing areas with very high risk of wildfires. The measure would require state and local authorities to amend land use policies to account for fire hazards and ban certain developments in high-risk zones unless projects met enhanced requirements.

“As climate change deepens and the hots grow hotter, the hazard wildfire poses to California communities is greater than ever before,”  the bill’s author, Sen. Mike McGuire, D-North Coast, said in introducing the proposal. “We have to take decisive action now. Lives literally depend on it.”

The California Building Industry Association opposes the measure, saying it “opens the door to an avalanche of new regulation, which, in turn, will place new burdens on housing development and ultimately will render some new projects infeasible.”

The bill has won initial support in legislative committees and still needs approval from the full Senate and Assembly and the governor’s signature to become law.