Housing Playbook

Housing and Wildfire

Co created with SPUR, CA YIMBY and Greenbelt Alliance
What We Know
California has experienced unprecedented wildfire damage in the last several years due to decades of wildfire suppression, millions of people living in fire-adapted landscapes, and increased human ignitions combined with climate change that has increased temperatures and dried out land and vegetation. The seven largest wildfires in recorded California history have all taken place in the last four years. We need to develop tools to help us combat wildfire hazards and associated risk in order to save lives, homes and communities. At the same time, the state is experiencing a massive housing shortage, which is driving up the cost of housing and forcing people to move further and further away from job centers in search of more affordable housing.

The connection between housing policy and climate change is clear. If urban areas fail to produce housing in walkable neighborhoods near transit and jobs, more and more people will drive, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and fueling hotter temperatures. In California, climate change has already led to historic heat waves and drought that dry out vegetation, exacerbating the wildfires that burn down homes and pollute our air.

We need to keep communities safe from wildfires and other hazards and ensure that the state is producing enough housing to meet the needs of all Californians. How should state leaders balance these two goals?

What we want to do about it
Support higher density growth in in-fill locations that aren’t impacted by wildfire risk.
One of the single most important things we can do to mitigate wildfire risk and support the creation of new homes is to preserve, produce and redevelop in areas that are less impacted by wildfire risk and which are not located in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Supporting growth in safe in-fill locations includes zoning for more housing in low risk areas, making the permitting process faster while allowing for a public process and aligning public resources to support the preservation and production of affordable housing in these places.

Regional: Differentiate between different levels of wildfire risk in order to determine fire risk to inform growth plans.
Planning for wildfire risk requires differentiating between different types of risk. There are lands of the that are highly likely to burn again and again.
There are also different types of fires that occur in different types of lands and ecosystems of the state based on variations in vegetation, topography, and climate, housing density, and road networks. Above all, the location and arrangement of homes in fire-prone landscapes such as the Wildland-Urban Interface is the highest risk factor for loss of life and home, above all the others (Syphard). For example coastal California Southern California is more likely to experience to fast moving fires spread by high winds that consume grasslands, whereas forested areas in Northern California and the Sierras are likely to see
. These different conditions require different planning tools to manage and mitigate.
Because of these different types of fire risk are based on climate, vegetation and topography, housing location and density, regions in partnership with strong state regulations  is likely the most appropriate scale to plan for fire risk.

Council of Governments (COGs) and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) should be tasked with taking fire risk into account as part of Sustainable Community Strategies, including working in coordination with state and federal agencies to determine levels of fire risk severity. As part of an SCS, regional planning agencies can determine which parts of the region are safest from a fire and multihazard perspective, and/or which parts are more easily protectable with mitigations.
To help inform regional plans, state fire maps need to be updated and refined. Cal FIRE and Cal OES maps that designate high, medium, and low severity fire risk zones are several years old, and don’t reflect the growing risks of a longer, drier fire season associated with climate change.
These types of mapping tools should be refined statewide by Cal OES and Cal FIRE and updated on an ongoing basis so that they can be used to support appropriate growth policies.
The State of California should then overlay the number of homes and people living in these various wiidfire risk levels with the level of growth currently allowed. The state RHNA numbers need to be integrated into the layers so that jurisdictions and the public can see where homes are located, where they might be built and how many are needed to prioritize development. Most counties and cities don’t have the resources to do such an analysis.

Don’t build new housing or job centers in areas of the highest wildfire risk as defined by CalFire maps and the State of California integrated with regional planning processes such as the Sustainable Communities Strategy.
Concentrating growth in places with low or even moderate hazard risk may be needed address our housing crisis. In these instances, it is beneficial to distinguish between areas that are already developed, where urbanization could be further encouraged and areas that are undeveloped, where conservation efforts may need to be pursued.
Affordability levels to achieve state housing mandates must also be part of the equation.
However there are some places where fire risk is so significant or where multiple hazards (earthquake/landslide etc) overlap that we simply should not be building new housing or job centers there. This multi-hazard approach is important to utilize when thinking about where to encourage and where discourage growth. When high risk areas are entirely undeveloped, they should be protected by conservation efforts including the purchase of the land or conservation easements in these areas to ensure that they are never built on.
As mentioned above, mapping and planning tools need to be further refined and utilized at the regional scale so that these no-growth areas are defined with precision and so that wildfire risk is not used as an excuse to prevent new housing construction from occurring in appropriate locations for growth.

Develop guidance to inform how existing towns and cities with higher fire risk should approach growth and mitigation
There are many places throughout the state -- cities and towns in more rural areas, but also more urban areas that are adjacent to wildlands-- where wildfire risk is high, but where growth has already occurred and additional growth may be planned for and needed to address the housing shortage. In these places, it is important to use community planning tools to help manage and mitigate risk. For example, should growth be discouraged on the periphery of town and encouraged in the center? Should a fire break be built between the developed part of town and the wilderness area? In general, building more densely can help increase the defensibility of a place. The state should help lift up
and provide funding and technical assistance to support communities in planning effectively to address fire risk.
Additionally, mitigation standards for existing buildings in high fire risk areas should be developed. These mitigations should be defined by the state as minimum with regional strategies that go beyond to manage the type of fire that threatens the location. The state should develop financing tools to ensure that homes for low- and moderate-income households in these locations are retrofitted to be fire safe.

Align utility planning and insurance regulation policies with wildfire risk and growth plans.
As the state continues to grow, it is important to take utility planning into account. The state should be working with private operators and planning with public operators to ensure the safety of existing systems by planning for on-going maintenance and upgrades, as well as thinking through the interdependence of these systems and how to keep them running during a major event. Insurance for private property should likewise be regulated to ensure that fire insurance is affordable and available for homes in areas where growth is encouraged and priced to reflect risk in areas where growth should not be supported.

A regional approach combined with state standards is appropriate. Given the full determination to regions without strong state guidance and oversight will result in a patchwork of regulations that are most likely to be weak and cater to development pressure as we’ve seen for decades.
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