climate change

The Straightforward Way to Make California’s Wildfires Less Deadly

2.7 million Californians live in the state’s highest-risk fire zone. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Everywhere he looks, California state senator Henry Stern sees burning. “When you go through the trauma of fire, it just sticks with you,” he says. “It stays in your head all the time and you get obsessed with it.” When he was growing up in Malibu, brush fires were a way of life, but they were nothing compared to the Woolsey Fire, which swept from one end of Stern’s district to the other in 2018, burning 97,000 acres and destroying 1,600 structures — including his home. The fire also killed three people, but that figure doesn’t include Stern’s own grandfather, who used a wheelchair and was evacuated from the area with difficulty; Stern believes that the chaos and discomfort of that day contributed to his death a few months later. So when a silver plume curled over the ridge into Stern’s Topanga Canyon neighborhood last Saturday, a gray May morning with patchy drizzle and hardly any wind, Stern’s reflexes immediately kicked into high alert, even as he initially hoped it might be just fog. But Stern’s instincts were right, and what would grow to become the 1,150-acre Palisades Fire has since triggered the evacuation of 1,000 people in the first big Southern California fire of the year.

Just weeks earlier, Stern had advanced critical legislation that might meaningfully reduce this ever-present anxiety for the 11 million people who live in the state’s wildland-urban interface, or WUI. But with each year’s fire season starting earlier — or, maybe, not actually ending from the year before? — Stern feels a surge of urgency whenever he spots highly flammable, invasive yellow mustard sprouting on the roadside or a neighbor who hasn’t properly sealed their garage door to protect it from wind-driven embers. “It’s really a ‘where’ or ‘when,’ not an ‘if,’” he says. “Every night, I go to bed and I’m like — is this going to be it?”

Although Governor Gavin Newsom put $536 million in a fire plan last month — mostly directed at fuel reduction and forest thinning — what Stern is proposing is the state’s first comprehensive effort to prevent loss of life and property by regulating where people can build. This, it can be argued, is a more appropriate approach for a state confronting not only a climate emergency but also a housing crisis: The number of homes that burned in 2020 was equal to one-seventh of the new ones built in the state during the same year, says Michael Wara, climate and energy policy program director at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “The future will make last year look normal,” says Wara, who describes the state’s efforts to date as walking up an escalator going the wrong way. “We need to look at 2040, well within the term of a 30-year mortgage. Based on what we’ve learned about warming, we really need to be asking these questions about where we put the homes that will help people live in California.”

Stern has two bills about this in the legislature right now. SB-63 would fund fire-prevention efforts in existing communities and train local organizations in statewide standards for home improvements known as “hardening.” SB-55, on the other hand, would do something that’s practically sacrilegious in the land of $20-million megamansions built on spec: It would prohibit new development on the state’s most fire-prone lands. Stern — an environmental lawyer and the first millennial elected to the state legislature — openly acknowledges that passing these bills will be politically difficult. But putting them into practice might be even harder, as it will require financial sacrifice and local cooperation from people who, in many cases, have opted for a more, shall we say, isolationist lifestyle. “There’s truth in that frontier mentality that populated these rural peripheries of our reluctant metropolis — they started with people saying, ‘I’m on my own,’” he says. “But if you live in the middle of the fire zone, that has a cost to it, and my big concern — which is not always shared by the people I represent — is that there’s an inequity to allowing that land use to continue.” In other words, when his constituents’ homes burn in Calabasas, the residents of Compton still end up paying for it in the costs of fire suppression and higher insurance rates.

What Stern’s bills would start to do is chip away at the state’s bad growth patterns that have put millions of people — including, more and more often, firefighters and first responders — in harm’s way. The Palisades Fire, for example, is spreading through chaparral that last burned 50 years ago, which is about when developers started grading the nearby hillsides for the Palisades Highlands neighborhood (amid protest from environmentalists who argued new development would overwhelm local fire resources). The first homes were sold here in 1975, carved out of the Santa Monica Mountains into a dozen aspirationally named gated communities like Enclave and Summit, which are technically located in the city of Los Angeles — but about two miles of wilderness away from anything else. “These homes were built when we not only didn’t fully understand the risk — the risk was actually lower then,” says Wara. “Now the risk is higher, and the rules should change.” Yet even as the city has become well-aware of the increased fire risk, homes have continued to be built higher and higher onto this hillside — there’s a 1.2-acre vacant lot for sale, for example, just a block away from where the Palisades Fire started — a pattern that is repeating across the state; in the past 40 years, the people living in higher-risk areas has doubled. Homeowners are also pushing back against even modest suggestions to defuse fires, like removing combustible landscaping. Complicating that dialogue is a societal desire to target causes over prevention, which, in the instance of the Palisades Fire, turned into a dangerous crowdsourced vigilante effort to apprehend an arson suspect. Citizen CEO Andrew Frame, who launched the manhunt with a $30,000 bounty to “get this guy,” owns a home in nearby, fire-prone Bel-Air. This insistence on finding someone to blame for the fires — virtually all of which are caused by humans, even if not set deliberately — is a distraction. “Whether arson or accidental or natural, whatever that might mean, the ignition is less an issue than the fact that you’re living in an ecosystem that burns,” says Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “If no one lives there, and an arsonist went up there, you would deal with fire differently. The issue is, people have moved into places that are flammable.”

And that cold fact, Stern says, is the thing that many of the state’s wealthiest and most powerful property owners refuse to hear. “I actually have to say no to Malibu,” says Stern. “No, you can’t build your new mansion.” But if there’s anyone who can say it, it’s someone like him — who has been there, who has lost sleep and potentially a family member to the omnipresent threat of fire; who knows what it’s like to live consumed with the task of staying one step ahead of the flames.

The Straightforward Way to Make California Fires Less Deadly