A Plea to Journalists – Wildfires in California: please investigate poor land planning rather than denigrating the region’s iconic, native ecosystem

Many in the fire science community are disappointed by the recent reporting in High Country News (HCN) by Elizabeth Shogren on the tragic fires in northern California (Shrub-choked wildlands played a role in California fires, HCN 10/24/2017).

Portraying the ecology of the region as “choked” by native shrublands not only demonizes California’s richly biodiverse, characteristic habitat, the chaparral, but fails to come close to explaining why and how the fires occurred. Little effort was made in the article to help readers understand the situation. Instead, the article simply repeated hackneyed phrases over-used to describe fires in the western US.

Every fire is different. Large, high-intensity wildfires have long been a natural feature of these chaparral landscapes. What has changed is that we have put people in harm’s way.

A quick overview on Google Earth of what burned in the devastating Tubbs Fire would have revealed that it was not “shrub-choked wildlands,” but rather a complex patchwork of non-native grasslands, oak woodland, conifers, chaparral, and unfortunately, a lot of homes intermixed.

Tubbs veg area south no fire
“Shrub-choked wildlands?” The area burned in the Tubbs Fire was actually a complex patchwork of non-native grasslands, oak woodland, conifers, chaparral, and unfortunately, a lot of homes intermixed. Most of this area shown above burned within the southern portion of the Tubbs Fire, including the neighborhood of Coffey Park (in the lower left hand corner).
Tubbs distance with arrow
The distance of the devastated neighborhood of Coffey Park (tip of arrow) was approximately 1.6 miles from any significant amounts of wildland vegetation (beginning of arrow). Brown/amber colored areas under arrow indicate non-native grasslands burned during the Tubbs Fire.

Blaming nature and past efforts by firefighters to save lives and property through fire suppression ignores the actual problem – poorly planned communities in high fire risk areas.

Ironically, the article quotes a source that admits large fires have occurred before, but the source goes on to ignore the full history to support his contention that the recent fires were unusual, a classic logical fallacy. Yes, the article reads, there were large fires in the past (when we were suppressing fires), but the recent fires are different because we have been suppressing fires.

Memories are short. Despite claims to the contrary, wildland fires along California’s west coast and inland valleys have not changed much since the 1964 Hanly Fire, a blaze which burned nearly the same territory as the Tubbs Fire but was even larger. What has changed is human demography.

Tubbs Hanley Fires

Santa Rosa, one of the areas hardest hit by the northern California fires, has seen its population increase five times since 1964. This dramatic increase in population can impact fire losses in several ways. Since 99% of the fires in Sonoma County are caused directly or indirectly by people (e.g. intentional ignitions or powerlines igniting fires), increases in population contributes to an increased probability of a fire igniting under severe weather conditions. Increased incidence of human-caused fires also plays a role in the type conversion of native shrubland, converting it to highly flammable, non-native grassland, which increases ignition probability and rate of fire spread.

Therefore, the primary question to investigate is why neighborhoods like Coffey Park, a community devastated by the Tubbs Fire, were approved by a planning department in the first place. By looking at fire history maps and understanding the potential of fierce Diablo winds, planners should have recognized that Coffey Park was positioned in the wrong place and built with the wrong materials. It shouldn’t have taken much imagination to realize a repeat of the wind-driven Hanly Fire could sweep through Coffey Park with devastating ferocity.

(Addendum: The Fountaingrove development about 2 miles east of Coffey Park was devastated as well and was exposed to even more fire risk. The city approved the development anyway. In a comment below, Richard Nichols wrote, “Fountaingrove area was the worst case of fire planning. Santa Rosa allowed it go ahead even though it was against their own zoning, and were warned repeatedly that it was in a serious fire zone.” Please see our follow-up post for additional information).

The failure of planners, and the politicians who set the pro-development tone, to mitigate the potential for death and destruction from a wildfire in a known fire corridor borders on criminal neglect. The homes were built and the planners walked away, forcing firefighters to become the first line of defense instead of what they should be – the last line of defense after everyone else has fulfilled their responsibility to create and maintain fire safe communities in one of the most fire-prone regions on earth.

Second, the claim in the article that the Tubbs Fires started “well into wildland areas” is misleading and ignored the critical issue, roads. The current estimate of the fire’s origin is somewhere along Highway 128 near Bennett Lane about two miles northwest of Calistoga, an area with wineries, homes, and lots of invasive, flammable, roadside weeds. In fire country, roads represent one of the most common ignition points on the landscape (previously we indicated the origin was near the intersection of Calistoga and Porter Creek Roads based on available fire maps at the time).

Yes, the fire did sometimes move through dense chaparral. But the derogatory reference to the chaparral that burned as a “shrub-choked” wildland, supposedly created by “decades” of fire suppression, reveals a level of ignorance about California ecosystems that defies logic. Chaparral naturally covers large areas with dense, impenetrable species like manzanita and chamise. Its growth pattern has nothing to do with past fire suppression efforts. When it burns, it burns intensely. It’s not “designed to burn pretty hot,” as if the ecosystem was created by some kind of pyromaniac, but is what one can expect when a lot of small twigs (fine fuels) ignite, especially when those twigs have been subjected to long term drought, high temperatures, and Diablo winds.

While the description of wildland fire creating a “head of steam” like some kind of 100-ton locomotive creates a vivid image, it only reinforces public misconceptions and unnecessary drama about how fire behaves. Fire does not have any significant mass; therefore, it does not have any significant inertia. Flames stop the moment fuel is no longer available. If proper defensible space has been created, the next concern is the inevitable ember storm. Embers are like a wind-driven swarm of killer bees that will find the weakest link in any home, typically an attic vent or a pile of firewood stacked against a wall. Why the Coffey Park homes were built without ember-resistant vents and other fire safe features is a testament to criminal negligence, not because firefighters have extinguished past fires to save lives and property.

Regarding the critics of fire suppression, what do they want firefighters to do? We ask them to extinguish fires for a reason – they kill people and destroy property. Would we rather they just let fires burn and threaten our communities? How about more prescribed burns (fire agencies stopped calling them “controlled burns” long ago when many of them grew rapidly out of control)? That would only add more fire to a coastal and interior landscape that has already suffered too much fire, leading to the loss of native shrubland habitat, only to be replaced by more flammable weedy grasslands. Regardless, such an approach is impossible when people’s homes are scattered across the countryside. As an alternative, do we want to employ massive grinding machines to destroy the very natural landscape people enjoy, taking out habitat that supports one of the most biodiverse regions on earth?

Grinder Joel
A large masticator being used in the Cleveland National Forest to grind up large amounts of shrubland habitat.

We need to stop blaming firefighters for doing what we ask them to do and demonizing the natural environment in which we chose to live.

After misrepresenting nature around Napa and Santa Rosa, the article seamlessly flows into a discussion about climate change and conifer forests in the High Sierra and the Rocky Mountains as if the wildfires that burned in northern California are the same as higher elevation forest fires. They are not. Napa and Sonoma Counties do not have forests like those found in the Sierra Nevada, nor do they have the same climate. Is the climate changing? Yes, and its impacts will likely increase fire risk throughout California. But a one-size-fits-all explanation about how wildfires behave ignores critical factors that can help us create solutions that address problems specific to California.

The reason the Tubbs Fire was so destructive was not because of some kind of Frankenstein wildland created by firefighters, or climate change, or the failure “to cut down some trees and remove the underbrush.” The Tubbs Fire was so destructive because land planners have failed us, with firefighters left holding the bag.

Planning agencies need to be the first line of defense. Local leaders need to restrict development in fire prone areas, require strict fire codes for new developments throughout California, enforce proper defensible spaces regulations, and demand that older communities retrofit homes within ten years to increase their chances of surviving an ember storm. Such policies would cost significantly less than pretending we can stop wildfires in one of the world’s most fire-prone environments.

Trees, shrubs, grasses, or homes will all provide the necessary fuel for a wildfire. It’s part of California’s story, as are earthquakes and post-fire floods. So as we do with earthquakes and floods, our goal should be to reduce the damage when wildfires arrive, not continue to think we can prevent them from happening at all. And that goal starts at the planning department, not the fire house.

For more about protecting your home from wildland fires, please see our webpage on the topic.

Helpful information on the northern California fire from the New York Times.
Fire Damage:

Homes Lost:

48 Comments on “A Plea to Journalists – Wildfires in California: please investigate poor land planning rather than denigrating the region’s iconic, native ecosystem

  1. Thank you for this intelligent, informative piece. I am so grateful to you for your dedication to California’s beautiful chaparral and all of its voiceless inhabitants.

  2. I completely disagree about your assessment of the Coffee Park neighborhood.. the fire only jumps the 101 in the most extreme of circumstances.. nothing but grass on on the west side of the 101.

      • Questioning why Coffee Park was built in the first place.. that’s what I disagree with. There’s no reason that shouldn’t have been built. We can’t plan for ever worse case scenario or we’d never leave home..

      • I don’t understand why you singled out Coffee Park. Fountaingrove area was the worst case of fire planning. Santa rosa allowed it go ahead even tough it was against their own zoning, and were warned repeatedly that it was in a serious fire zone. FG should have remained in open space, instead develops held sway ever SR planning and city council.
        They are as responsible as any for this disaster. Coffee Park was, as you point out, several miles from any heavy vegetation

    • “Questioning why Coffee Park was built in the first place.. that’s what I disagree with. There’s no reason that shouldn’t have been built. We can’t plan for ever worse case scenario or we’d never leave home..”

      Fine, but then people should not be shocked and appalled when it burns to the ground taking 20+ lives with it.

    • Brad, we see your point, but we are not saying developments can’t be built, we’re saying that if they are built, they must take into consideration the fire risk and mitigate that risk. Newer developments are doing this to a certain degree, but it’s the older ones that are at greatest risk built during a time when planners really seemed to be oblivious to most dangers, especially fire. These older developments must be required to retro-fit their unsafe conditions.

      • I’ve been in Santa Rosa all my life and have worked in environmental restoration including being past president of the California Native Grasslands Assn. I agree with most of the article but the idea that Coffey Park shouldn’t have been built. I think you’re confusing it with Fountain Grove. Coffey Park is surrounded by urban development and bordered by hwy 101, which is 4-6 lanes in the area. It was a matter of time before Fountain Grove burned, but I never would have imagined the fire would come down hill from fountain grove, cross a freeway and cause the devastation of Coffey Park.

        • Good point, Wade. Yes, Fountaingrove was the neighborhood with the obvious threat. The reason we highlighted Coffey Park was personal. We lived through both the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 Witch Creek Fires in San Diego County. Both jumped over Interstate 15 (14 lanes for the Witch Creek Fire and 20 lanes for the Cedar, plus highway shoulders). The Witch Creek threatened our home.

          The 101 was a new jump for northern California, but based on what we have experience down here, it seemed likely a fair probability; southern California fires are heading north.

      • This is basic common sense. We retrofit buildings to current earthquake codes; rebuilding should absolutely be done with fire safety in mind for design and materials.

    • 1) In extreme fire weather, fire spreads primarily by embers. It is very common for spotfires to occur up to 1.5 miles downwind of actively burning fire fronts, and spotfires up to 12 miles away from a wildfire have been observed. A century of fire history and firefighter experience clearly show that freeways like Highway 101 are no kind of barrier to spread of a weather-driven wildfire if the wind is blowing across it. In the recent years the somewhat descriptive terms “hopscotching” and “leapfrogging” have been coined to describe the way wildfire seems to hop, skip, and jump through a community from one patch of receptive fuels to the next.

      2) Grass should not make you feel safe. Dry grass is one of the very most receptive fuelbeds for ignition by embers. Grass on the downwind side of a freeway (as you described) is the very easiest thing for an airborne ember to ignite. Burning grass also generates lots of short distance embers. With wind on it, surface fire spreads faster in the flashy fuels of grasslands than it does in any other fuel type. This makes it all the harder for firefighters to catch the spotfires before they get away. Rapid rate of spread also makes grassland fires especially dangerous to people. More firefighters have died in grassland fires than in any other vegetation type, usually by getting trapped when the wind shifts suddenly.

  3. I agree with your thesis but have two issues regarding your points about fire behavior and prescribed fire. For one, yes, fires can “build up a head of steam” due to fire-atmosphere interactions and increased pre-heating of fuels in front of large fire fronts. Second, prescribed fire escapes are exceedingly rare. 99% of prescribed fire are held within the planned burn unit and even those that do jump a line are not necessarily “escapes” (Ryan et al. 2013).

    Your overall premise is correct though. These fires were not the result of fire suppression or “over-grown” fuels, but rather development in the wrong place.

    Ryan KC, Knapp EE, Varner JM (2013) Prescribed fire in North American forests and woodlands: History, current practice, and challenges. Front Ecol Environ 11(s1):e15–e24.

    • Thanks for your comment. No doubt fires can change the atmospheric conditions, but people get this notion that walls of flame cross freeways and take out neighborhoods because of the hyperbole. That’s what we are trying to address.

      • I’ll semi- agree with with your criticism of the HCN article. It appears they could have written more carefully. I absolutely agree we need more and better planning.Communities built in urban fire interface need way, way more deliberation and code enforcement, but the fact is they’re there. They’re everywhere. The real question for most of California is, OK, what now? I doubt many houses in that fire would have been saved by better protected vents.

        This was a really hot fire being driven by 30 – 50mph winds and, yes, burning with a ‘wall of flame’ however hyperbolic that may seem to you. You dismiss prescribed fire (adding a needlessly snarky ‘no one calls them controlled burns’ comment). For the communities already in the wildland urban interface (don’t have percentage, but it’s significant for California), fuels have to be reduced to create a buffer such that they create defensible space for large areas in addition to that created for individual homes. How do we do that?

        You, also, edge onto hyperbole by not fairly representing the alternatives: “employ massive grinding machines” (really? and you snark on “wall of flame”?) or dismissing prescribed fire entirely because homes are already there? C’mon folks, there’s ways to work with this and, critically, there are no alternatives once the homes and communities are there.

        I’ll cheerfully admit I don’t know a lot about the effects of prescribed fire in Chaparral to know how it would change the plant associations. But your article did nothing to help us understand that beyond your dismissive tone nor did it propose reasonable or, really, any ways to prevent disasters like this for homes and communities already there.

        I’m assuming you folks do know this stuff but you really should have taken a couple of deep breaths before answering the HCN article in such high dudgeon. A calm discussion and review of the current situation, how to mitigate the danger and what the ecological effects might be on your particular interest, chapperal. But there’s many equally important competing interests out here (California) that need to be considered. Alas, this article was not an especially helpful addition to that discussion.

        • Thank you George for your comment. You make some good points.

          In regards to vegetation management, we support appropriate defensible space regulations (100 feet from the structure with a zoning approach, from zero flammable material within the first 30 feet, then last 10 feet a thinned, lighting irrigated space), and 100 foot buffer areas around communities themselves with thinned vegetation. Nearby strategic fuel breaks that can create opportunities for suppression and firefighter safety zones are also appropriate.

          The massive grinding machine comment comes from our experience with US Forest Service projects. The machines are indeed massive:

          Masticator, Cleveland National Forest.

          Masticators, Los Padres National Forest.

          Here is our detailed approach to protecting homes and communities from wildfires which we listed at the bottom of the article:

          We agree our tone was intense. Sincerely, it needs to be now to get people’s attention. We have been engaged in this discussion for nearly 20 years and homes keep burning and lives continue to be lost while many government agencies continue to focus on approaches that have failed to protect the public. We have been working with federal, state, and local agencies to convince them to include the other half of the fire risk equation, the home and planning. Some communities like Big Bear and Idllywild in southern California have listened (here are the details). Others have not. We are hoping these fires will finally change the conversation.

          Thank you again for your contribution.

        • Heard of the Applegaye valley in Oregon? How do you approach their view on reduction in fual and fire suppression?

          • I misspelled this in my original post. Thx for the rapid reply. It is actually spelled Applegate Valley. Or Applegate watershed if you want to research it.
            In a nutshell, southern Oregon with similar terrain as Mark West. Home and landowner driven action to reduce fuel loads for fire. Worth a look. I know a major palyer in that game.
            Im limited in reply due to use of device rather than a PC. Apologies that I cannot better respond at present. I will look for references and get back with better info. It will certainly add credence to this debate. Sorry I cannot add more at possible.

  4. You can take the responsibility of making sure your home has had everything possible done to protect it from the inevitable consequence of wildfire, when you live in a wildfire zone. If someone had planned for worst case scenario, fewer houses and fewer lives would have been lost. That is what developers and city planners are supposed to do.

  5. I think you’re misinterpreting the article you’re responding to. The author does not seem to me to primarily be talking about chaparral when they describe the “shrub-choked wildlands.” From the context it’s clear that the reference is to forested areas. Chaparral in the area where these fires occurred is almost entirely on serpentine soil or volcanic outcrops, particularly on steep slopes. The rest of the landscape is dominated by oak woodlands and open grassland. Because of the lack of disturbances like fire, both of those vegetation types are taking on a larger shrub component. Grasslands are being colonized by coyotebrush and oak woodlands are being colonized by understory shrubs like Rhamnus, toyon, and doug-fir saplings. There’s lots of very good research supporting both of these transitions over the past 100 years of fire suppression. The 50+ years it’s been since the Hanley Fire is far longer than the fire return interval in this area would have been prior to the arrival of Europeans and this is definitely having an effect on the system.

    Of course, you’re absolutely right that patterns of development made this fire worse than it should have been. Coffey Park was not in a fire prone area, but Fountaingrove was and the structures there may have provided stepping stones the fire used to progress as far as Coffey Park and the Santa Rosa lowlands. The homes in Fountaingrove did have structural fire protections, however, because the danger in that environment was well known by city planners and insurance companies. Blocking the development altogether would have been the only real solution in this case.

    It’s hard to say what more prescribed burns in the area would have done to change things, though. It’s certain is that they would not have reduced the amount of genuine chaparral. Chaparral species are indeed “designed to burn” by both their ecology and evolution, so the species there come back as stump sprouts or new seedling very quickly after fire and the vegetation type is very hard to change even when that’s the stated goal. The effect of more prescribed fire would have been mostly in the oak woodlands, which may have had less understory fuels to carry the fire. In fact, many public open spaces in the area have used a mix of prescribed burning and manual management of fuels over the past decades to conserve the oak woodlands and it will be very interesting to see if these management tools had any effect on the movement of the fire or its intensity.

    • Thank you for your reasoned comment, John.

      You are definitely correct concerning the Fountaingrove development. The point we were making by focusing on Coffey Park is how winds and embers need to be considered in planning decisions. While at first glance Coffey Park didn’t seem to be in a fire prone area, it burned with a vengeance. So the fire planning area needs to be expanded. We feel that should have been part of the planning process originally due to the Hanley Fire. The 1923 Berkeley Hills Fire and the 1961 Bel Aire Fire had already occurred which provided models for what could happen (although Bel Aire was more comparable to Fountaingrove).

      Determining the natural fire frequency in the Napa/Sonoma area can be determined by lightning records. Since natural fires are dependent on lightning, one can use lightning frequency as a proxy for fire frequency. According to the data, the Sonoma area has one of the lowest lightning-caused fire frequencies in the entire state (7 lightning-caused fires/million hectares/yr vs. 828 human caused fires over same).* Napa/Lake Counties is a bit higher (17 lightning fires/m hect/yr). Therefore, the area burned in the recent fires has limited lightning ignition, which would have created relatively long fire return intervals, probably on the order of centuries.

      Native Americans likely increased fire frequency considerably in the area to increase grassland areas, with later ranching/grazing expanding the grassland expansion. That’s when the fire return interval was probably reduced significantly in the range you are mentioning. So the recolonization of shrub species like coyote brush and others is a return to naturalized conditions. Although you are correct that such a recolonization does increase the fuel load, the science indicates that is the natural condition. The problem is that people don’t necessarily like that condition and want the manage the land according to their needs and values.

      I believe the research your are referring to on fire suppression is mostly restricted to the mid-elevation slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

      Although the east bay is a bit different, Keeley 2005 does a good job discussing much of this.

      Thank you again for your comment.

      *Keeley, J.E. 1982. Distribution of lightning and man-caused wildfires in California, pp. 431-437. In C.E. Conrad and W.C. Oechel (eds), Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Dynamics and Management of Mediterranean Type Ecosystems. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report PSW-58.

    • Hi John. Yes the McIntyre et al. 2015 paper does examine the changes in forested areas. No question they have changed, but the paper excluded the central valley region which appears to include Solano County and surrounding areas. Foresters have really never been interested in counting trees that couldn’t be cut or studying areas that had too much chaparral. So I don’t think the paper can help us with this situation.

      Agree that what once was is really not as important as what we want now and in the future. The patchwork landscape is what we have, and it will likely only become more so. The question is, how are we going to manage the people who want to live in and around those wildland areas.

      • The regions used in McIntyre et al. align to the Jepson ecoregions, which do not align to counties. The forested western part of Solano County is included with the inner North Coast and so should in the analysis. There definitely also are FIA plots there. FIA does not focus on only commercial forest. It includes all types of forest on both public and private land. It does not include chaparral or grasslands, though.

  6. Misleading article with arguments made that are diversionary and irrelevent. Wildland management and management of the fuel load on private properties would have completely changed the outcome of a fire that could have been contained with with better firefighter responce and resources. Tax cuts to fire depts. and lack if air support til day 3 are what caused this catastrophy to go on for 1-1/2 weeks.

    • Randy, it would be helpful if you could identify exactly what you find misleading in the article, and how those arguments are diversionary and irrelevant.
      – Do you find the proposal that homes in high fire risk areas should be retrofitted for fire safety, irrelevant?
      – Do you think the request that land planners reevaluate how they assess developments to make sure they are as fire safe as possible, irrelevant?
      – Do you find the perspective that fire fighters are unfairly asked to deal with poor planning with their lives, irrelevant?
      – Do you think pointing out the natural fire ecology of chaparral, irrelevant?

      And while we fully support increased funding for fire departments, especially those that do not meet the national standards like San Diego City, do you really believe that more money could have stopped the fires during the most devastating portion (the first 48 hours)? Have you asked any of the on-the-ground firefighters about that? Do you know what the factors are in using air support at night with winds in excess of 50 mph? How do you account for the loss of Coffey Park that had basically 1.5 miles of dried grasses and US 101 between it and the head of the fire?

      Citations would also be helpful.

  7. I liked your perspective on this as I usually do. I live in Santa Rosa and the over suppression idea that reporter mentioned doesn’t hold water here. There is also no such thing as prescribed fire here. I live a few blocks from the Tubbs, Oakmont, and Nuns fire. Being I recent transplant from San Diego County I have experienced many urban interface fires in SoCal. I was firefighter on the initial attack of the Witch fire in Ramona. A quick response to the commenter that said there was a lack on air support. The is a false claim that is made a lot in CA. I was here for these fires, there was no lack of air support. As you know most of the main damage was done at night and in high winds were no air support is even possible.

    I drove through the Fountain grove neighborhood frequently and thought it was doomed. High dollar homes at the top of drainages with a huge amount of fuel below. Typical urban interface. There was brush there, but not like brush in SoCal. The view is mainly conifer, grass, and oak and some brush. It should probably have never been built do to fire history and predicable fire behavior.

    I am not so sure coffee park should not have built, but built with fire in mind even though it is not a typical urban interface neighborhood. I think that is what you are getting at. It was a flat suburban neighborhood. From the stories, pics, and video from my coworkers the main carrier of fire in Coffee Park was structures. Urban conflagration instead of an urban interface fire. I would not have imagined it burning like that. I have always agreed with you on planning our communities with fire in mind instead of blaming fire loses on everything else except poor planning. I have not had the impression that people here in the north bay even think about fire in their communities. Not like they do in Ramona and Julian where I worked or in Escondido where I grew up. Maybe because it had been a while since they have had to deal with it. Altough as we know even in SoCal people don’t think enough about it…

    • Thank you for the detailed information, Jesse. This one really got to us as we’ve been fighting for the proper recognition of fire risk throughout the state as it applies to what matters most, protecting lives and property. There is so much focus on vegetation and often blaming the fire service. We are hoping this time around, planning will take center stage.

    • Annadel experimented with prescribed burns back in the 1990s, but had to stop because of smoke complaints from people in Oakmont and vineyards in the valley. Since then open space groups in Sonoma County have consistently had their burn permit applications rejected because of the smoke problem. That’s why there’s no such thing as prescribed fire here. Instead we’ve been forced to manage underbrush manually with chainsaw crews, which is just an terribly inefficient way to reduce the fuels.

  8. I believe one of your pictures referees to the starting point of the tubbs fire near the intersection of petrified forest rd an Porter creek however I’ve read many articles and spoken to several firefighters and they all mention the starting point of the Tubbs fire down at hwy 128 and Bennett lane somewhere ….

  9. The city council and the planning department are bought by the housing developers here in Sonoma County. One of the problems with the Fountaingrove development was that for mitigation, they were allowed to plant douglas fir trees, which went up like matchsticks. Coffey Park is an older area, and had a 6 lane freeway as a fire break. 70 mph winds tossed burning tree branches across to the area of Coffey Park. Fountaingrove homes burnt first, then it came down the hill fueled by the area, and crossed over the freeway to Coffey park.

    The developer of Fountaingrove is known to get away with less regulation and safeguards than anyone else. Here in Cotati, they are building a 42 high density development, next door to a gas station. The permission to build was signed and sealed by the city council, even before the escrow had finished on the property. They were able to start building within 2 months..similar developments by other developers have been waiting 10 years to build their developments because we have limited buildable space left here in Cotati. They used plans and the EIR from 2002 to start building…expiration dates were ignored, there was no design review meetings, etc.

    Santa Rosa knew about the possibility of Santa Ana type winds and what was needed for Fountaingrove to be built safely. They ignored everything and built them on 1/2 acre lots and on the ridgeline which was against the city codes. Here is some research I did (the LA times called me to use it!) :

    Click to access FGII_DRAFT_CWPP_EDIT_10.02.09_to_SRCDD_0.pdf

    Click to access FGII_Fire_Assessment_and_Mitigation_Report_April_2004_by_Pete_Martin_of_Sonoma_Fire_0.pdf


    Click to access santa_rosa_wildland_urban_interface_report_hra2_for_2004_part_ii_page_27-end.doc.pdf

  10. I disagree with this statement: “The failure of planners, and the politicians who set the pro-development tone, to mitigate the potential for death and destruction from a wildfire in a known fire corridor borders on criminal neglect.” There is no border: it is undeniably criminal.
    Further, and you may have info on this subject, I have always been told that California before Europeans arrived was green year-round; that the native grasses are evergreen, and that all the grasses that turn our hills gold in the summer are introduced non-native grasses. These are certainly what burns fastest.
    And my third point is that as residents understandably demand to rebuild their homes in the same fire path, it seems a no-brainer that all those homes, and possibly all homes built in California and the West should be built to withstand fire: non-flammable siding and roofing at the very least.

    • Thank you Jane for your comment. You are correct about how non-native grasses have radically altered California. And yes they are indeed, highly flammable, unlike the perennial native bunch grasses we believe you are referring to.

      We can only hope fire codes will be implemented to reduce the flammability of the new homes AND that the insurance companies and the city will assist homeowners in doing so.

      Personally, we concur with your opinion about the planners and the politicians. Hopefully there are folks who are investigating the possibility of using to courts to prove it.

  11. I found this blog via a link in the New York Times that included a link to your op-ed in the LA Times. This particular blog post is so apposite I feel impelled to join the Institute. Thanks.

  12. Pingback: A Plea to Governor Brown. Please think differently so you can help protect us from fire, mudslides, landslides, flood, and drought. | The California Chaparral Institute Blog

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