We need creative solutions for fire-safe development

Over the past several years, severe wildfire conditions across the Western United States have impacted communities throughout California and prompted new questions regarding where and how to build homes in communities outside our cities.

While more urban density is one way to address the critical housing needs of a growing population, it is not the only option.

Finding creative solutions to live in harmony with nature is part of our history, as we’ve shown in adapting to earthquakes that leveled structures built in the late nineteenth century that were unprepared to withstand seismic activity.

The solution wasn’t to stop building and leave earthquake-prone areas.

We learned, adapted and built vibrant communities that endured California’s seismic eruptions. New earthquake-resiliency policies and technologies driven by research have enabled the continued safe, responsible development of communities in areas considered high seismic hazard zones.

Today, wildfires have become the top concern among natural disasters, as more than half of California residents view the threat of wildfires as a perilous problem.

To adapt to California’s current challenges, we need a new paradigm for responsible, fire-safe development that combines proven practices and cutting-edge technologies based on science—with actions to combat climate change and investments that will not only make our communities safer, but also create the economic growth and jobs needed to ensure the future viability of rural communities in the Wildland Urban Interface.

Increased state funding for wildfire prevention, research and response recently signed by Governor Newsom is a good start, but more resources will be needed to support R&D for innovative and nascent technologies as we continue to address the risk of wildfire in California.

My research colleagues and I are working to improve ecological sustainability and resiliency by quantifying fuels loads of various landscapes, such as chaparral and grasslands, or built environments, such as vineyards and golf courses. We are learning how irrigated landscapes can act as a fire break and inform fire spread models.

Our team is currently working with project developers and fire safety experts at Guenoc Ranch, a mixed-use development in Lake County, to analyze historical fire patterns and the impact of fire-safe development practices. That study will be provided to CAL FIRE and made public to inform future fire-safe development. Some of these practices include the undergrounding of power lines, the use of AI-enabled cameras to detect and respond to small fires early to improve defensible space, and home hardening measures like a new non-toxic suppressant solution that can protect roofs and homes from fire embers.

We are exploring new approaches to land management in wildland areas that public agencies and private developers can utilize to reduce the likelihood of wildfire spread and shield communities from wildfire, including replacing highly flammable vegetation such as chaparral brush with vineyards, olive trees and other more resilient agricultural elements that can be effective fuel breaks.

My Disaster Lab at UC Berkeley is contributing to an innovative program to recruit, educate, and train a more diverse fire service. R1 universities and community colleges collaborate to provide plant ecology, geographic information systems and other education beyond traditional minimum requirements and engage firefighters in demonstrating, evaluating, and disseminating independent evaluations of emerging technologies for adoption.

Like the generations of Californians before us, we can collaborate to finding solutions to today’s pressing problems. We can innovate with science and chart a much-needed pathway for smart and responsible fire-safe development that will make our communities safer and more resilient now and for generations to come.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Thomas Azwell is an environmental scientist and director of the Disaster Lab at UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering.

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