LOS ANGELES — A month after two monstrous wildfires simultaneously engulfed communities across California, causing unprecedented destruction and leaving nearly 90 people dead, lawmakers attempting to address a statewide housing shortage have approved a massive new development nestled in wildlands deemed at “high risk” of fire.
After nearly 20 years of negotiating with environmental groups and planners, Los Angeles County supervisors voted four to one on Tuesday to greenlight the controversial 19,000-home and mixed-use development set to be constructed in the dry, craggy hills of Tejon Ranch, a sprawling 270,000 acres of mostly untouched wildlands located about 70 miles north of the congested bustle of downtown Los Angeles.
The approval of the so-called Centennial project comes as thousands of residents across the state are still reeling after losing their homes and loved ones in the Camp and Woolsey fires, which torched communities at the base of Northern California’s Sierra Foothills and the canyon- and valley-flanked suburbs of Los Angeles. The Camp fire, now the state’s deadliest on record, killed at least 86 people and destroyed nearly the entire town of Paradise, burning 19,000 homes and buildings, and further amplifying concerns over whether communities should be constructed near wildlands.
In 2018 alone, more than 1.6 million acres have burned in the Golden State.
Across the US, developers have continued to stretch communities deeper into forests, mountains, and grasslands, creating what’s known as a wildland–urban interface. In 2010, there were 25 million more people and 12.7 million more homes in these areas than in 1990.
In California, ferocious wildfires have increasingly swept through cities and towns on the fringes of urban areas, killing hundreds of people and swallowing large swaths of communities. Last October, another wind-driven fire ripped through the city of Santa Rosa, rushing through apartment buildings, mobile home parks, and fast-food restaurants, killing 22 people and leveling more than 5,000 structures.
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Wildfires have become so unpredictable and catastrophic that on Tuesday, the same day LA County supervisors voted to go forward with the housing project, the head of California’s firefighting agency told the Associated Press that state officials should consider banning development in vulnerable, fire-prone areas.
"The reality of it is, California has a fire-prone climate and it will continue to burn," Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told the AP. "Fire is a way of life in California and we have to learn how to live with it, we have to learn how to have more resilient communities."
Although Cal Fire deploys its firefighters and resources across the state to help local departments fend off these blazes, which often burn for weeks and cost millions to fight, the state agency does not have the authority to stymie developments in fire-prone areas.
“We don’t have any say as to what jurisdictions do,” said Deputy Chief Scott McLean, citing the Centennial project as an example. “We have general guidelines for building and infrastructure and it’s their responsibility if they adopt it.”
But when fast-moving wildfires bear down on these communities, it’s Cal Fire’s job to help battle and extinguish them.
Tucked away in the mountains between Kern and Los Angeles counties, Tejon Ranch — California’s largest privately held piece of land — encompasses a range of habitats, from Joshua tree-dotted deserts and meadows, to pine tree–flecked mountains and cool forests. It’s also identified by state fire officials as a “high” and “very high” fire hazard zone.
Over the last half-century, 31 wildfires have engulfed more than 100 acres of land within 5 miles of the master-planned community, including four within its boundaries, according to county planning documents.
County officials, however, have pointed out that the community will sit mostly on flat grasslands, its homes and structures built of fire-resistant materials with buffer zones, and its roadways widened to enable floods of cars during an evacuation. Four new fire stations will also be there to support the neighborhoods.
“These will not be 50- to 60-year-old wooden buildings with shake roofs within close proximity of ... pine trees found on hillsides and canyons,” LA County supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the area, said after the vote, adding the development goes “above and beyond” the state’s environmental regulations.
Supporters of the project also tout its promise to bring thousands of homes and jobs to a swelling state in the midst of a serious housing shortage, which the spate of recent fires has further exacerbated. Since 1970, California's population has doubled to nearly 40 million people. The state needs about 180,000 new homes per year to meet the needs of its growing population, but only delivers about 80,000.
But Sheila Kuehl, the lone supervisor who voted against the project, said the development fails to deliver on its promise of building affordable housing, and resources should be devoted to constructing homes near job centers far from the risk of wildfires.
“Obviously we need to house a lot of people but I can’t support building another city so far away from everything and creating infrastructure when I’d rather better the urban centers we already have,” she said. “I’m also concerned about their affordable housing promises. I think that number is a pie in the sky.”
Kuehl said she was also concerned about the development’s impact on the environment and the state’s already taxed firefighting budget, predicting it would become “an extra use of resources if we’re deploying firefighters out there to protect people and structures.”
In an effort to build affordable housing, developers and residents have continued to push into the state’s wildlands, erecting homes encircled by dry brush, trees, and parched mountains, explained Kurt Henke, a retired chief with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
“There are places we just shouldn’t build,” he said. “It’s not just an issue of wildlands where you will have fires in those areas. It’s also that we have a changing environment. Because of climate change and drought, once these fires break out they take everything in their path.”
From 1990 to 2010, developers in California built about 1 million homes in previously rural areas, expanding the state’s wildland–urban interface by 20%, according to a 2017 US Forest Service report. Over that same time period, the state has endured a record-breaking drought and relentless heat waves, which have dried out vegetation and produced the conditions that have fed monstrous wildfires.
“You can put fire-resistant structures in those areas and you can put hundreds of feet of clearance around them and still everything will burn,” Henke said. “We have never experienced this type of intense fire behavior in such a common occurrence in our lifetime.”
Paradise, for example, was prepared for wildfires. Town officials had retooled evacuation plans and its residents had rehearsed a drill just the week before, but the rapid rush of towering flames swarmed its neighborhoods before people had time to get out the door.
“They had got it down to how many cones they needed to line the streets to guide people out,” said McLean, who lives near what remains of the town. “But no one can plan for a fire that envelopes huge sections of a community one after the other.”
Despite President Trump’s repeated (and false) assertions that California’s fires are a result of poor water- and land-management policy, experts have continued to stress that the blazes have been particularly devastating because more people are now residing in natural areas.
“The issue of homes burning and people dying is a function of where and how we build,” said Max Moritz, a cooperative extension wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. “As a society we have limited building based on other natural hazards but we don’t really do that with fires.”
California needs to retrofit existing communities tucked into canyons and dry forests to be able to face the growing threat of wildfires, update its already stringent building codes, and ban development in dangerous high-risk areas, the researcher said.
“Assuming that better building codes and wider roads are going to limit tragedies during fires and evacuations is short-sighted and simplistic,” he said. “There might be fewer home losses, but in conditions like that, there will still be losses.”
Moritz said that the state needs to make immediate, “big intelligent leaps” forward to adapt to an environment where fires are larger and more frequent.
“We don’t have time for incremental change anymore,” he said. “Paradise should be our reckoning.”