This post advocates greater consideration of conservation development techniques at the wildland-housing interface in California’s fire-prone areas to reduce housing destruction risk. For land use planning to become more effective in mitigating fire destruction risk, it needs to be based on a comprehensive understanding of where and how to locate and arrange new homes within the landscape they are placed.
As discussed in my recent post Fire Policy at the Wildland-Housing Interface: The Unsolved Problem Land Use Lawyers Are Well-Positioned to Help Solve, in those parts of California with a Mediterranean climate, land use decisions play a significant factor in fire risk to housing. That is due to the commonplace practice of land use planning placing houses at the edge of fire-prone natural areas in traditional housing development configurations. Incorporating fire risk mitigation into land use planning represents a shift in traditional thinking from focusing on fire resilience and fire suppression (a central tenet of traditional land development methods) to minimizing exposure to fire destruction through the informed placement of new residential structures (a concept consistent with conservation development’s core principals).
A September 18, 2020, Pew Charitable Trusts article titled California May Need More Fire to Fix its Wildfire Problem provides an insightful synopsis of the need for California’s leadership to reconsider the long-term strategy of suppressing fires to minimize structure destruction at the wildland-housing interface. That article captures the chicken-egg nature of the problem: “[e]ven as leaders rethink the role of fire [suppression], development throughout the state has made it much more difficult to let things burn.”
Successfully reducing the vulnerability of communities built at the wildland-housing interface to fire-caused destruction requires a multi-pronged approach. I recommend that policymakers consider the benefits and potential of a new approach to fire mitigation: start with and build the approach around conservation land development techniques. This is because such land use techniques are based on maintaining what has historically regulated the scope of fire destruction: healthy natural ecosystems. Ron Goode, chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe in California’s central valley, who has led many prescribed burns, believes that California “needs to give more attention to restoring healthy ecosystems, rather than focusing only on fire suppression.”
STEVENSON RANCH, CA: A USEFUL CASE STUDY
Traditional land development techniques do not incorporate as an objective the maintenance of natural ecosystem functions on the landscape in which development occurs. The absence of such an objective unnecessarily increases the risk of housing destruction in fire-prone areas. The past twenty years have made clear that removing flammable materials from around housing structures and constructing housing with fire-resistant materials is not enough.
The relatively new Stevenson Ranch development in Santa Clarita, California, provides a useful example of a well-intentioned – but insufficient – approach to long-term fire risk mitigation. With 5,000 master-planned homes, the Stevenson Ranch development sits in the middle of an extremely fire-prone area. Brush and chaparral-covered dry hills dominate the Santa Clarita valley in which the development sits. A 2007 L.A. Times article Why Some Averted Disaster discussed the 2003 Simi Fire that burned 108,204 acres, including right up to the edge of Stevenson Ranch. The article credits the development for having “made their own luck” by building the homes with fire-resistant materials and ringing the development with a 200-foot greenbelt that replaced native vegetation with fire-resistant plants.
However, such a fire mitigation approach at best may have provided a mere short-term solution. That is because the long-term ecological impacts on chaparral and sage scrub landscapes from fire clearance measures are prone to having significant long-term detrimental ecosystem impacts. The authors of a 2008 study found that scientific evidence increasingly shows that the cumulative effects of defensive space actions, like fire clearance measures, “is a primary contributing force of ecotype change, habitat destruction, slope destabilization, [and] water quality impairment . . . .” Recent indications are that all of those impacts increase the risk of future fire destruction.
KEY TAKEAWAY: DEVELOP AROUND ECOSYSTEMS INSTEAD OF OVER ECOSYSTEMS
For land use lawyers and land use decision-makers, there are two key takeaways from recent scientific studies. First, land use laws and regulations that emphasize (a) the removal of chaparral and sage shrublands around housing development and (b) with the utilization of fire-resistant building materials are not the best long-term means to mitigate fire risk for homes at the wildland-housing interface. Second, such land use laws and regulations also have detrimental long-term environmental impacts beyond the fire-related impacts.
Fuel management measures that remove significant native vegetation at the wildland-housing interface leads to substantial environmental degradation of native ecosystems. Hillside and riparian areas are destabilized. Traditional methods of lot parcelization and increased road building to ensure firefighting access results in preventable habitat fragmentation.
In southern California’s chaparral and sage shrubland dominate landscapes, those native vegetation systems play an essential role in delivering and supporting ecosystem services that many in southern California directly and indirectly benefit. The vegetation’s most significant functions are stabilizing southern California’s vast hillside soils and fostering water infiltration into soils. Chaparral regrows quickly when fire occurs as part of the natural fire cycle, thereby reinforcing ecosystem-wide life cycles. Conversely, if chaparral unnaturally burns too frequently, it does not regrow and instead is replaced with much more fire-prone alien grasslands. Such negative ecosystem impacts have the unintended long-term consequence of increasing the occurrence of unnatural fire.
The better approach for southern California’s fire-prone areas lies in land use planning that:
- Minimizes alternations to the natural landscape, and
- Is designed to allow fire to occur naturally.
Both of the above are core tenants of conservation development’s ecosystem-based approach to land development. Such an approach has not been widely tested. Therefore there is no guarantee that even ecosystem-based land use planning, like conservation development, will sufficiently mitigate structural fire risk in fire-prone areas. However, recent scientific studies across various disciplines indicate that an ecosystem-based approach to land development at the wildland-housing interface can both lessen environmental impacts from landscape alterations done in the name of fire defense and provide greater protection against future fires. Such science should lead the way forward, with land use attorneys among its lead advocates.
 Stephanie Pincetl, et al., It’s the land use not the fuels: Fires and land development in Southern California, REAL ESTATE REVIEW 37.1, at 25 (2008).
 Van Butsic, et al., Can Private Land Conservation Reduce Wildfire Risk to Homes? A Case Study in San Diego County, California, USA, LANDSCAPE AND URBAN PLANNING 157, 161-169 (2017) (discussing how acquisition and preservation of natural landscapes can contribute to the reduction of wildfire risk to homes in exurban areas, using San Diego County, California, as its case study).
 Alexandra D. Syphard et al., Setting Priorities for Private Land Conservation in Fire-Prone Landscapes: are Fire Risk Reduction and Biodiversity Conservation Competing or Compatible Objectives?, ECOLOGY & SOCIETY 21.3, at 2 (2016).