California's Fire Chief Suggests Maybe It's Time to Stop Building in Wildfire Hotspots

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Back-to-back wildfire seasons have taken a huge toll on California. Billions of dollars of infrastructure have gone up in smoke; people have become homeless and been killed. It’s been a disaster that raises extremely uncomfortable questions about what comes next.

In an interview with the AP, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said building back in fire-prone areas isn’t necessarily good idea. Nor is putting new homes and businesses in harm’s way in the first place.

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“Firefighters are living climate change, it’s staring them in the face everyday,” Pimlott told the AP while pointing toward the physical and emotional toll the past two years of facing the most destructive fires in state history have taken. Those include last year’s Wine Country Fires, the most destructive in state history until the last month’s Camp Fire took the title and incinerated an entire town in the process, and the Thomas Fire, which became the largest fire in state history last December only to be surpassed by the Mendocino Complex this year.

Pimlott went on to suggest prohibiting building in high risk areas:

California already has the nation’s most robust building requirement programs for new homes in fire-prone areas, but recent fire seasons underscore more is needed. Officials must consider prohibiting construction in particularly vulnerable areas, said Pimlott, who has led the agency through the last eight years under termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown...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.”

California’s fire chief isn’t the first to question the viability of building back in harm’s way (cough, cough), but he is among the most high-profile people to suggest it. The concept reflects what coastal homeowners and policymakers alike have been grappling as sea level rise inundates communities. Now a time of reckoning has arrived for not just California but the whole West as climate change has made large fires more common and stretched fire season 105 days longer than it was in the 1970s. More human ignitions due to things like power lines are only increasing the risks further.

Oh, and people love to live harm’s way. The bucolic landscape where the forest meets the town—known as the wildland-urban interface—is the fastest growing land use in the Lower 48 right, right at the worst time to build there.  

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Who makes the decisions about where to build and where not to is an open question. Pimlott mentioned local land managers and state officials as possible deciders. The federal government—currently led by a man who thinks we can rake the forest fire problem away—not so much. But make no mistake, something has to give. Safety is the top reason managed retreat for the forest, but economics are also a strong impetus. The Camp Fire put a local insurance company out of business, and state and federal firefighting budgets have ballooned to combat more ferocious blazes.

“These are hard conversations,” Pimlott said. “If it were easy, these conflicts would’ve been resolved decades ago.”

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