REDDING — Big blazes had licked the rugged outskirts of this city before, blackening nearby forests. But a wildfire had never surged across city limits — not until the Carr Fire changed everything.
It blew into the city of 91,000 people from the west late last month, leveling 1,079 homes. Four residents died. So did two firefighters. And the fire burned so hot that it created its own weather, generating a lethal tornado that spun up to 143 mph.
The next steps after a major California inferno are to recover and rebuild, to seek a great renewal from the ashes. But in this devastating season there’s a sense that the usual calculus could change — that places like Redding must not only decide how to rebuild, but whether to do so at all.
“The people who live in burnable landscapes have to understand that California can’t protect them,” said Tom Scott, a natural resources wildlife specialist with the UC Cooperative Extension in Riverside. “We do have a fire service, and they’ll do all they can and work really hard. But there’s going to come a day when a fire can’t be fought, and they’ll lose their home.
“We’re in that transition right now,” Scott said. “We need to start making better decisions about where we build.”
The Carr Fire, which as of Friday had scorched 230,000 acres and was 93 percent contained, had barely blitzed into Redding when supportive calls began coming in from Ventura and Santa Rosa. Officials in these cities experienced disastrous blazes last year and knew the difficult path ahead.
They knew Redding had joined the ranks of a rare but fast-growing club: cities that couldn’t have fathomed losing whole urban or suburban neighborhoods.
“It’s the new fire we are seeing across California,” said Redding City Manager Barry Tippin. “When you see a wildfire that does not exhibit any traditional characteristics, it’s not only a total surprise, but it also causes great strife and stress within a community. We, as a state, need to step back and realize that something is different here.”
October’s Tubbs Fire, which swept west from Calistoga into Santa Rosa, destroyed more than 5,600 homes. The Thomas Fire took 1,000 homes in December in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Overall, more than 10,000 buildings and more than 1 million acres burned last year, according to Cal Fire data.
In the aftermath, local officials expedited building permits and allowed housing to be rebuilt in the same footprint — albeit with some new fire-safety standards.
But as global warming fuels extreme fire behavior, some urban planners and disaster-recovery experts are questioning whether rebuilding in the same fire-prone areas is safe. Maybe all of those developments shouldn’t return, they say. Perhaps the conversation needs entirely new parameters.
“Risk perception kicks in differently for different kinds of disasters,” said Laurie Johnson, a disaster-recovery consultant who has helped cities, including New Orleans and Kobe, Japan, after fires, floods, earthquakes and other catastrophes. “With wildfires, it’s really difficult to know. We are facing new intensities with these storms. We can’t look to the past and say it is a good prediction of the future anymore, and that’s very difficult for people to wrap their heads around.”
Once the flames have been vanquished and the fire trucks have rolled out, local governments must balance two critical interests, Johnson said. The first is relieving the suffering of victims who want to rebuild. The second is creating new policy around how those homes should be constructed.
But finding a balance is not easy. Especially when wildfire behavior no longer follows a known formula.
“Should some places not be allowed to rebuild at all?” she asked. “Is there now a new category with a higher fire risk than we thought possible? It’s hard to predict if and when a place might burn again. Those are the challenges of a thoughtful formula.”
Moreover, making good policy becomes harder in the emotionally charged weeks following a disaster. And there is little precedent for governments preventing residents from rebuilding on their own still-valuable land.
More than 25 years after the Oakland hills firestorm, the 3,000 ruined homes have been rebuilt. In Santa Rosa and just east of the city, the Mark West Springs and Fountaingrove communities are following a similar trajectory nearly a year after the Tubbs Fire.
Those areas are still at high risk for fire, some experts say, pointing to them as examples of poor urban planning.
“It’s really hard, in the heat of a catastrophe, to think about doing things differently,” said Sarah Karlinsky, a senior policy adviser at SPUR, a public policy think tank focused on urban planning in the Bay Area. “It’s really important that cities and urbanized places do their planning work up front. It’s hard to take a step back right after a disaster happens, and the window for making changes can close quickly.”
The state’s guidelines for the so-called wildland-urban interface — which dictate how homes can be built on a city’s more flammable outskirts — can help increase fire resiliency on a local level. For example, since 2011, the state has required that all newly built single-family homes have sprinkler systems. But such additions can quickly become costly, especially if a city marks its burned areas as extreme fire-hazard zones.
In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — hit by December’s Thomas Fire and, later, a massive and deadly mudslide — as well as in Sonoma County, expedited permit centers were created in the months after the disasters. Officials slashed fees to help the process become more affordable.
But zoning rules were not updated, and building codes largely remained the same. One of the few additions stipulated that new homes needed to be constructed to current code. Critics say the same decisions that led to homes being destroyed by the hundreds or thousands are being made again.
Complicating matters is the difficulty of calculating risks across the state, while factoring in things like weather, vegetation and the strength of nearby firefighting and forest management. Even with the best planning, wildfires can do immense damage under the right conditions in unexpected places — like neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and Redding.
“If you’re a homeowner and it’s your property, you have a legal right to rebuild there, and that’s what happens,” said Charlie Eadie, a consultant who helped rebuild downtown Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. “If the areas are hazardous, then the question is: Are they so hazardous that you can’t rebuild? Or can they be rebuilt with some hazard mitigation built in? This is the part of disaster that creates opportunity in the sense that you can build safer structures.”
Matthew Schjoth, 41, hasn’t thought much about what comes next. He knows he wants to rebuild his Redding home, but the details will have to come later. It was only last month that the Carr Fire leveled his neighborhood of Lake Redding Estates, a few days after being ignited by a blown trailer tire on July 23.
Schjoth and his wife, their four kids and two grandchildren moved in with his in-laws in Cottonwood (Shasta County), just south of Redding along Interstate 5. Sometimes they reminisce about what they lost, and it still doesn’t feel real. The family had lived in the home for 12 years.
Neighbors knew it as the “Christmas house.” Every December, Schjoth’s father-in-law would dress up as Santa and they would convert the garage into a toy workshop. Schjoth would hand out hot cocoa and candy canes. Their memories are wrapped up in the property on Harlan Drive, and so that’s where his family wants to return.
“This is definitely not something that was ever expected to happen,” he said. “It probably won’t ever happen again in my lifetime.”
But wildfires do tend to return to the same places, experts say. They point to the Hanley Fire of 1964 in Sonoma County, which scorched nearly the same area as the Tubbs Fire. Back then, walnut orchards stood where neighborhoods later developed, and fewer than 100 homes burned.
Because predicting when the next blaze might happen is difficult, it’s important to thoughtfully rebuild, if a resident rebuilds at all, said Michele Steinberg, manager of the Wildland Division at the National Fire Protection Agency.
“Wildfires will continue to burn because it’s part of the phenomenon of the ecosystem and the landscape,” she said. “Where you’ve had fire before, you’ll have fire again. The thing is, nobody stops building, whether it’s a good idea or not. Community officials need to think ahead and realize there is risk, accept it and figure out the best ways to rebuild.”
In Redding, where the Carr Fire torched homes across the socioeconomic gamut, from sprawling homes in the hillside to low-income tracts of mobile homes, officials are already pondering how to do that. Fire fuels management — cutting “defensible space” around homes — only recently became a requirement, said officials who are considering beefing up the building code further.
“The city has always been interested in developing fire resistance, to do anything they could to prevent a big incident,” said Tippin, the city manager. “Going forward, we will put more thought into that and more things we can do.”
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