Population-Based Fire Planning

Population-Based Fire Planning

by Allyson Tabor

In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew sailed up the California coast near present-day Los Angeles and observed a haze of smoke covering the landscape near a large bay. This was such a remarkable sight that the Spaniards named the area “Baya de Los Fumos” or “Bay of the Smoke”. This may have been a description of the inversion layer trapping the smoke of cooking fires of the large indigenous population, or it was the first written record of landscape fire on the West coast of California.

The end result was a mosaic of private and government-owned lands subject to different rules, and the total suppression of fire.


The prescribed burn project near Caples Lake resulted in that area escaping the worst effects of the 2021 Caldor Fire.


Fire is a part of the landscape of California, and has been for eons. California has a Mediterranean climate, which means precipitation occurs during the winter, and summer is the dry season. Most fires occur and spread during the dry season, and the native vegetation was adapted to the cyclical nature of burns. An example of this is the Sargent’s Cypress which evolved to require fire to germinate. California Native Americans, who formed the largest population in North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans, practiced controlled burns in order to select for favorable plants and habitat for game.  Their cultural practices complemented the natural cycle of fire and rejuvenation.

The combination of human-caused and natural fires kept the fuel-load low enough to prevent intensely hot fires from which the eco-system cannot recover. A simplistic model is that low temperature burns allow for a cycle of wildflowers, replaced by stump-sprouting brush, replaced by trees, along with the variety of animal life supported by this ecosystem, then fire ignites and the cycle repeats. Suppressing fire results in an overgrowth of woody vegetation which results in hotter fires which incinerates the soil, thereby destroying all plant and animal life that would normally survive below the surface of the soil, and the cycle cannot repeat. 

When the Europeans arrived they introduced European grasses which were not drought-tolerant and fueled the seasonal fires. They eradicated the indigenous population, and eventually outlawed controlled burns, thereby leading to dense woodlands without meadows. After the Gold Rush, the Europeans clear-cut forests, leading to a dense re-growth of trees of a similar age, built communities of single family residences without factoring in the natural environment, water sources and the inevitability of fire. The end result was a mosaic of private and government-owned lands subject to different rules, and the total suppression of fire.

Nearly 500 years after the arrival of Europeans in California, human-caused climate change has further exacerbated conditions by creating hotter temperatures, drought, and drier fuels which result in bigger, more frequent fires.

The resulting eco-system we inhabit in California and the West today is a hodgepodge of built environments, scattered across the natural environment without regard to natural cycles, water availability or fire patterns, ruled by a a tangle of conflicting laws and regulations dictated by jurisdictional, not natural, boundaries.  

Coping with fire might be more successful if we implement a broader view, both temporally and geographically, across jurisdictional boundaries.  Coordinate with fire, use it to our advantage instead of fighting it inexorably.

Live with fire, rather than fighting it. Approach it with a population-based focus, a concept used in Public Health. This means considering how the actions of an individual can affect all, and designing programs to benefit the entire population.

The Forest Service realized the futility of constant fire suppression and pivoted to a policy of managed fires in the 1970’s. This allowed a more beneficial management of national forest lands and began to reverse the damage that 100 years of fire suppression had caused.

Prescribed burns and thinning projects were increasingly implemented in recent years and land management agencies realized the benefit fire had on the landscape. An example of this is the prescribed burn project near Caples Lake that resulted in that area escaping the worst effects of the 2021 Caldor Fire. But because these practices of managed fire and prescribed burns were applied only to land under their control i.e., public lands, a comprehensive regional policy of living with fire has been difficult to implement. Private interests have been allowed to thwart projects and policies that would benefit society as a whole. The managed fire policy was suspended this year, a visceral reaction to the ferocity of recent fires, rather than allowing the policy to evolve according to current exigencies brought on by climate change.  This decision to shut down the managed fire program might not be the best one. Yes, people are afraid when faced with fire burning down their homes. That fear leads to myopia and misguided self-interest. It would be better to take a broader view: work on saving those people’s homes and lives in the short term, but at the same time continue the long-term project of reducing fuels so we won’t face fires like that in the future. That means long-range planning and addressing the problem on many fronts. 

A number of forest scientists sent a letter to the USDA objecting to the cessation of the managed fire program and encouraging a more scientific approach. In recognition of the benefit of prescribed burning to the entire population, California State Senate Bill 332, establishing a fund and reducing liability for prescribed burns, was passed in September 2021.

Richard Wilson, who ran the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in the 1990s recommended a broad-based approach back in the 1990’s, under Gov. Pete Wilson. He recommended that California implement a statewide system of land use planning to prevent unfettered suburban sprawl into woodlands and to establish sustainable timber harvesting. That would have meant curtailing the profits of private land developers and timber magnates who, not surprisingly, pressured the governor, and the plan was scuttled. As a result, clear cutting continued, resulting in the regrowth of uniform tracts of dense, high-hazard timber, and tracts of dense housing built in woodlands without mitigating for fire risk. Fires became catastrophic, Cal-Fire shifted from managing fires to the more high-profile fire-fighting institution we have today, and the State has no way of preventing individual Counties from allowing developers to dictate growth.

A region-wide plan which includes private and public lands is the only way to comprehensively plan for fire and other natural hazards. That means that municipalities or Counties, influenced by profit-driven Chambers of Commerce, should not independently be deciding on where to build and how to build. A region-wide approach should be pursued, led by scientists, planners and subject-matter experts, not politicians. An example of a successful regional approach with a long track record is the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA). This agency was created to include both California and Nevada to prevent degradation of Lake Tahoe, and dictates what development and activities can occur anywhere within the watershed affecting Lake Tahoe, irrespective of political boundaries.

The agencies and professionals who work behind the scenes are largely unrecognized, but their dedication and knowledge, not subject to political and popular pressure, are necessary to create a viable system. The Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative (TCSI) , formed in 2017, is such a collaboration.  Their mission statement outlines the collaborative approach: “Building upon several large-scale regional efforts and best available science, the TCSI Partners have established the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative to accelerate regional scale forest and watershed restoration through ecologically based management actions while creating the opportunities to support a forest restoration economy and explore innovative process, investment, and governance tools.” 

The Tahoe Nature Conservancy (TCI), which is part of the TCSI, has managed multiple projects promoting resilient forest communities over the years and is a key proponent of the regional collaborative approach. Their goal is to create forest and community resilience. The Nature Conservancy, USFS, California Tahoe Conservancy, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, National Forest Foundation, California Forestry Association, UC Natural Reserve System all joined forces in TCI to collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries to create a resilient forest community. TCI makes a compelling argument for forest resiliency through managed fire in their 2019 report, “Kelsey, Rodd. 2019. Wildfires and Forest Resilience: the case for ecological forestry in the Sierra Nevada. Unpublished report of The Nature Conservancy. Sacramento, California.” 

The Caples Ecological Restoration Project was one of the TCI projects designed to re-introduce fire into the landscape. It received criticism when fire escaped some of the perimeter during the prescribed burn in 2019, but it proved a success when the 3600 treated acres survived the August 2021 Caldor Fire, which burned around, not through it. The unintended test of the 2021 Caldor fire proves that cyclical low-level burns prevent the high-temperature conflagrations that destroy forests and human communities. This is a strong argument for involvement in regional interagency programs that treat the forest on an ongoing basis.

The deleterious effect of not using a regional approach in land-use planning can be found by looking at what occurred in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa. That area repeatedly burned over the last century, yet developers ignored the history of fire and built housing tracts in the fire zone. Then the 2017 Tubbs Fire burned the neighborhood to the ground again and several people lost their lives. Yet Santa Rosa has allowed homeowners to rebuild after the 2017 fire without requiring the stringent State fire building codes which apply a couple of miles away, because Coffey Park is in the City limits and the Cal-Fire hazard zones do not have jurisdiction in the “urban” area. Incredibly, each individual landowner is allowed to decide whether or not to build a fire-resistant structure. If California had a regional plan, then this would not be an option. Fire hazard assessment and the decision to build would be based on a regional plan, not political boundaries. 

Insurance carriers follow this regional approach. They do not consider political boundaries when assessing fire-risk, hence the decision by many major carriers in California to pull out of fire zones. Fire insurance carriers are an example of an entity taking a regional, long term comprehensive approach to planning. They look at the geographical region, study fire hazard maps, identify the hazards, and calculate the probability of sustaining a loss based on the hazard, not who is on the Board of Supervisors that year. They do not assess risk for an individual house independent of its’ position within a fire zone. It does not reduce your fire risk if your 50 x 100 foot lot has been thinned to 5 trees if adjoining lots contain 100 trees and are thick with ladder fuel.

This is why those fire department flyers which promote “defensible space within 100 feet of your house” make no sense if directed only at the individual property owner. The average dimensions of a lot are 50′ x 100′. How does one homeowner create 100 feet of defensible space when his neighbor’s house is 25 feet from his? Defensible space needs to be calculated by evaluating the entire neighborhood/region and not making each individual property owner responsible for calculating which tree to remove to achieve the goal. A plan for the entire neighborhood/region (population-based approach), irrespective of property boundaries or ownership, should be devised and carried out. The cost should likewise be spread throughout the region, much like the cost of building and maintaining roads is spread throughout the region. All benefit from the amenity, and all should pay. All will likewise benefit from fire-mitigation efforts by suffering fewer fire losses and insurance premiums will be reduced because the risk has been reduced.

The regional or population-based approach also includes assessing absolute risk-is it worth it to build at all and who ultimately pays the price of failure? There may be areas where building is not wise, as risk cannot be mitigated and a loss is assured.  To use the insurance industry example again, insurance carriers have determined that it is highly likely they will have to pay a claim if the property is located in a fire zone, so they will not insure or they will reduce the number of properties they insure in that area to minimize loss. Many property owners in fire zones have been faced with non-renewal of their traditional homeowners policies.

These owners often have to resort to buying fire insurance through the Fair Plan, which is  funded from the profit of insurance companies who write property insurance in the State. While not directly paid for by taxpayers, there is an indirect cost paid by all insurance consumers: if there is not enough money in the Fair Plan to cover losses, then insurance companies will be assessed for any shortfall, which will be passed on to all insurance consumers in the way of increased premiums. Fire losses in the Tubbs and other catastrophic fires ultimately affected the entire population of insurance consumers.

The market-driven approach taken by the insurance industry might be instructive, like a canary in the coal mine. If insurance companies are pulling out of an area, perhaps that is a sign  to reevaluate the decision to build or rebuild. Regional entities should look at the area, the geography, the natural path and history of fire when considering building or rebuilding and determine the population and environment that will be affected. An individual homeowner cannot be expected to assess regional risk when contemplating building. The regional fire, water and sewer departments should not be committed to expanding their territory based on the decision of one landowner to build on a ridge in the forest. Conversely, the landowner would be in a much more secure position if they could rely on the recommendation of a regional entity who has the resources to consider all aspects before declaring the area safe to build.

In summary, a population-used focus to land use and fire planning will satisfy both market-driven Republicans and socially liberal environmentalists and Democrats. Accommodating and planning for the natural fire cycle will result in fewer catastrophic fires and a more resilient, natural landscape. Fewer catastrophes will result in a more stable less expensive built environment. Fiscal conservatives should be pleased because their investments are protected. Environmentalists and liberals should be pleased because the environment has been protected and will persist for the future benefit of the entire population. 

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