With Wildfires it’s Literally about Planning

With California’s Big Three electric utility giants (PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric) facing an avalanche of lawsuits over wildland fire liability, and their ratepayers on the hook to bail them out of prospective bankruptcy, it’s encouraging to see state and local governments, and non-government organizations taking long overdue but very positive steps to attack root causes of these increasingly prodigious, deadly and destructive wildfires.

At the state level, soon-to-retire CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott is calling for government officials to prohibit home construction in high fire risk areas, most of which are found in the so-called wildland-urban interface (“WUI”). He said in an interview with the Associated Press, it’s time that both government and the public start thinking differently about how best to protect lives and property from fires that now routinely threaten large populations.

New thinking, he said, may mean banning subdivisions in thickly forested mountainous areas or homes along Southern California canyons lined with tinder-dry chaparral. It may seem unbelievable but this week Los Angeles County supervisors are considering whether to allow a 19,000-home development in fire-prone mountains amid heavy criticism of the location’s high fire danger,” according to the AP interview with Pimlott.

He said it’s uncertain if those decisions should be made by local land managers or at the state level as legislative leaders have suggested. But Pimlott said “we owe it” to homeowners, firefighters and communities “so that they don’t have to keep going through what we’re going through.”

The expansion of wildland-urban interface areas is the result of a doubling of California’s 1970 population of 20 million to present day’s nearly 40 million, thus pushing urban sprawl into forested mountains and wildlands previously unoccupied by people and vacant of homes.

The immediate problem with a public policy restricting or banning home-building in high fire risk areas is it will trigger a legal battle royale over individual property rights versus governmental overreach.

No matter how prickly that issue may become, Pimlott advises, “We’ve got to continue to raise the bar on what we’re doing and local land-use planning decisions have to be part of that discussion.”

“The reality of it is, California has a fire-prone climate and it will continue to burn,” he said. “Fire is a way of life in California and we have to learn how to live with it, we have to learn how to have more resilient communities.”

Locally, there are a couple of developments dealing with the new reality of fires, and both efforts are examples of government and non-government organizations using the right approach.

Last week, it was announced by the County’s CEO office that the “County of Mendocino and the City of Ukiah have been actively working with CAL FIRE, the Ukiah Valley Fire Authority, and other stakeholder groups, to review and develop fire prevention and mitigation measures for the Ukiah Valley. “

One of the proposed measures to be discussed at a public meeting this week, is the restoration and expansion of a shaded fuel break at the base of the hills on the west side of the Ukiah Valley, first created in 2004.

According to the CEO’s statement, “A shaded fuel break is a forest management strategy used for mitigating the threat of wildfire leading to a dangerous buildup of combustible vegetation. The goal of a shaded fuel break is to thin the surface vegetation, remove dead and down woody material, remove ladder fuels to prevent a catastrophic fire, and prevent the loss of structures. The project involves the use of hand tools and power equipment to re-establish a 100-200 foot wide space, shaded by the mature tree canopy. Width of the break will vary due to slope of terrain and fuel loading … It is planned to run along the base of the western hills from Highway 253 to Hensley Creek. The County and City view this collaborative effort as a demonstration project to improve fire safety for the community.”

I also received an email from Jen Burnstad, of the Cloud Forest Institute, letting me know that a new forestry group had been formed to address another facet of fire safety and prevention, but with an innovative twist.

According to Burnstad’s email,

“The Forest Reciprocity Outreach Group, is a growing group of citizens in the Mendocino county region working to support the health and utilization of overstocked fire-hazard lands. Widespread agreement on management practices has coalesced in the wake of even-aged (“clear cut”) harvest and loss of ancient traditional low intensity fire management. Fuel loads have been steadily increasing for the last few decades as carpet regeneration has largely gone unchecked. Over competition for light, water, and nutrients has led to weakened forests, loss of diversity, and abundant dead wood. This has allowed wildfires to ascend into devastating crown fires that have decimated ecosystems and human settlements alike. We believe this burden can be our solution! As we improve natures health we will be reciprocated with abundance.

“The suppressed growth of ailing Douglas Fir trees creates extremely strong, ‘tight ring,’ small diameter poles that can be used as beautiful, sturdy, architectural elements. These poles exceed the tensile strength of sawn lumber with uncut continuous fibers running their entire length. Encased in natural fire-resistant clay-based wall mediums, these structures have proven to be exceptionally impervious to wildfires. This is a marked advance from expensive, often toxic, flammable dwellings. F.R.O.G.’s objectives are to reciprocate with nature and unburden forest lands of overcapacity, while creating beautiful, healthy, safe dwellings. And, to use poles for other useful structures and meaningful purposes. It is time for conscientious civilization to rise from the ashes!

“The Forest Reciprocity Outreach Group has been initiated through a collaboration of members of Cloud Forest Institute (www.cloudforest.org), Polecraft Solutions (polecraftsolutions.com) and local citizens. Financial support has been granted through the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, and the Just and Resilient Future Fund. With the formation of our advocacy co-op, we will schedule a series of presentations and events promoting practices of forest reciprocity, including demonstrations on assembling a round pole structure in both Laytonville and Ukiah.”

It’s encouraging to find that people from across the political, governing and environmental spectrum are working to come up with answers and formulating plans on how best to prevent and deal with these seemingly unpredictable and destructive wildfires because no matter where you live in California, you are at risk for wildfires. Don’t ever forget that. 

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live: http://www.kpfn.org.)

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