The recent catastrophic fires in southern California have, again, raised concern about growth in the wildland-urban fringe.
The astute words above are not from September 2020, as wildfires currently ravage across the western United States, but from 2008. Such remarks reflect the crucial role land use lawyers should have been playing to address what is suitably described as “a home ignition problem, not a fire suppression problem in wind-driven wildfires.” As the debate over the appropriate solution continues, the opportunity is there for land use lawyers to provide the missing piece to a much-needed solution: how to comprehensively reduce fire risk for housing built at the wildland-housing interface.
Case Study: California’s Chaparral Regions
There is no fire-prone landscape more in need of land use law revisions for housing development at the wildland-housing interface (or exurban fringe) than California’s vast chaparral areas. The following map, showing the chaparral dominate ecosystems, reveals the magnitude of the challenge:
The California Chaparral Institute is one of the most vocal advocates for changing fire policy in California to reflect the ecosystem in which housing is placed. The institute is very vocal that “most of California’s most devastating fires have been far from any forest.” The most destructive fires occur where the largest number of home buyers want to live: those parts of California with a Mediterranean-type climate with their characteristic mildly wet and mildly cool winters and warm and dry summers. The problem is that the ecosystems of Mediterranean-type climate zones are highly fire-prone. The following 2007 map, courtesy of Cal Fire, reveals a striking overlay with the chaparral dominate areas identified in the map above:
The Critical Fire Policy Question
As indicated by the 2008 quote above, the critical fire policy question has been around for some time. That question is: to what extent is the destruction of housing by wildland fires at the wildland-housing interface a function of land use planning decisions? Specifically, to what extent is the placement and arrangement of housing relative to the spatial landscape patterns of wildland fire hazards the driving cause of housing destroyed by fire when compared to fuel buildup and a warming climate?
Crafting an effective solution to address the above questions is as much a legal challenge as it is a science challenge. The absence of land use lawyers in tackling the complex question is undoubtedly a contributing factor to why a solution remains elusive. However, the lack of land use lawyers at the table is not surprising since the fire policy and fire management debate, especially in the media, has focused primarily on the issue of climate change and the ill-fated fire management policy of fuel suppression. The buildup of native vegetation fuels due to fire suppression policies, combined with a drier climate, does contribute to the severity of fires in the areas identified and discussed herein. The point is that such factors are not the underlying cause driving the destructiveness of fires over the past twenty years when the destruction level is calculated based on housing units destroyed.
Non-Legal Works Make Obvious the Need for Land Use Attorney Involvement
The absence of land use lawyers in the discussion is not for the lack of selected non-legal experts raising what are – at the core – land use law questions. A thorough article addressing the role of land use decisions on the fire impacts was a collaborative effort of ecologists, urban planners, habitat preservation advocates (and from which the opening quote above came). Titled It’s the Land Use Not the Fuels: Fires and Land Development in Southern California, the authors persuasively articulate how fire in California’s wind-driven chaparral and scrubland terrestrial ecosystems is driven primarily by past land use decisions. These land use decisions placed too many fire-susceptible housing configurations in highly flammable landscapes.
It’s the Land Use Not the Fuels’ authors argue that the prevailing pattern of land use development at southern California’s the exurban fringe – traditional master-planned communities and large-lot ranchettes that have disproportionately expanded into naturally fire-prone ecosystems to meet housing demand – creates a volatile mix. The increase in fire severity for communities located at the wildland interface is a reflection of that mix.
Housing Development Designs Need to Fit the Ecosystem in which they are Placed
Taking the research, arguments, and conclusions set forth in It’s the Land Use Not the Fuels and similar articles, I contend that the root of the problem is that housing development designs – a reflection of the underlying land use law – have not fit the ecosystems in which such developments were placed.
The suboptimal fit of development designs is best reflected in the common practice of traditionally built housing communities at southern California’s exurban fringe simply converting large areas of native chaparral and shrublands into significantly more flammable alien vegetation such as alien-dominated grasslands. Such habitat conversion has broader ecosystem impacts. Native chaparral and shrubland-based ecosystems – to many peoples’ surprise – are characterized by high biodiversity. Such ecosystems also serve vital watershed protection and soil erosion preventative functions. When such ecosystem alternations occur, it then creates a feedback loop that further erodes the ecosystem’s natural fire regulation cycle.
The reality for exurban development in southern California is that large-acreage, fast-moving, high-intensity wildfires have historically been part of southern California’s landscape. The challenge for public land use decision-makers is developing a strategy to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildland fires in conjunction with the private sector real estate developer community. The solution lies in crafting and revising land use laws to fit the fire-prone chaparral and shrubland dominate ecosystems where housing at the wildland-housing interface is being developed. I will layout out the specifics of a proposed solution in a future post.
 Stephanie Pincetl et al., It’s the Land Use Not the Fuels: Fires and Land Development In Southern California, 37 REAL ESTATE REVIEW 1, 25-42 (2008).
 See generally Jon E. Keeley et al., Alien Plant Dynamics Following Fire in Mediterranean‐Climate California Shrublands, 15(6) ECOLOGICAL APPLICATIONS 1849, 2109-2125 (2005).