Co-Existing with Wildfire


Across California, wildfires have been increasing every year. We’re seeing more wildfires burning, larger areas burned, and an increased frequency of high severity fires causing more damage to structures and lives lost. The impacts of devastation and loss, unbreathable air quality, and evacuations are widely felt. Drier winters and hotter summers are a disastrous combination, especially in California where devastating, record-level wildfires scorched more than 4 million acres in 2020 alone. California is the state with the most people (11.2 million) currently living in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI)—the area where houses and wildland vegetation meet or intermingle, and where wildfire problems are most pronounced. The single biggest risk factor driving loss of lives and homes to wildfires is the location and arrangement of homes in high fire risk lands in the WUI (Syphard et al., 2012). For example, placing homes at medium density scattered on ridges, hillsides, in canyons, and on other rural lands with typically winding, narrow roads far from city centers put people and property at the highest level of risk to wildfire. In other words, higher density, city-centered growth is the most wildfire safe.

There are three levels of responsibility that denote who has legal responsibility for fire protection in certain areas of the state:

  • State Responsibility Area (SRA) lands are the legal responsibility of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or commonly referred to as CAL FIRE, to provide fire protection. These SRAs are typically unincorporated areas.
  • Local Responsibility Areas (LRA) are typically incorporated cities, densely populated areas, possibly agricultural lands. These fall to the responsibility of the local government.
  • Federal Responsibility Areas (FRA) include lands administered by the federal government and fire protection in these locations falls to the federal government.

By law, CAL FIRE must map which of the state responsibility areas are Fire Hazard Severity Zones (FHSZ) and areas of Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZ) within local responsibility areas. All cities and counties in California with lands classified as either SRA or VHFHSZ must meet state planning requirements for fire hazards.

All General Plan Safety Elements for communities in the SRA and LRA VHFHSZ must update their Safety Element to address new wildfire requirements, per SB 1241 (2012). The Safety Element must be updated upon the next Housing Element update on or after January 1, 2014. California’s Office of Planning and Research has produced the Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory as a resource.

What’s at Risk

In the past decade alone, the Bay Area has experienced multiple devastating wildfire seasons. Every incident demonstrates the far-reaching impacts of wildfires on our socio-economic and ecological systems and the critical need for planning.

Northern California Wildfires California National Guard/CC-BY

Housing: The Bay Area’s recent fires have destroyed thousands of homes, putting further pressure on the region’s limited housing resources. Wildfire events often result in displacement of those whose homes have burned, and many times also displace already vulnerable populations who are priced out of housing opportunities as a result of acute increases in housing prices post-fire or who do not have access to the resources necessary to pay for insurance or rebuilding. Low-income people and people of color are often the most vulnerable to these displacement effects, further exacerbating existing wealth gaps (Davies et al., 2018). Given past experience and the present risk of future wildfires, continued development in WUI areas with very high fire risk is neither environmentally sustainable nor a viable solution to the state’s housing crisis.

Social and Economic Impacts: Even with the best planning policies in place to prevent future wildfire, local and regional economies will experience the negative impacts that come with the threat of wildfire. Wildfire events can result in cascading impacts to regional systems when transportation, water, and wastewater infrastructure is impacted—often requiring municipalities to invest significant time and resources to return to full capacity. During the 2019 fire season, Bay Area residents experienced regular public safety power shutoff events that affected over 2.5 million people (Zialcita & Gonalez, 2019). These shutoffs not only halted economic activity, but put residents’ health in danger. Municipalities’ fiscal health are increasingly impacted due to wildfires beyond immediate property damage, as local property tax bases become threatened, some residents might move away, and tourism can decrease, all impacting municipal revenues. In addition, wildfire recovery itself typically demands higher public spending.

Environmental and Public Health Impacts: Fire is a natural occurrence in the landscape across the West, needed as part of ecosystem processes. However, extremely hot and large wildfires burn vegetation storing carbon that is then released into the atmosphere, further contributing to planet-warming carbon emissions, while simultaneously impacting habitat and natural systems. Burned areas are more prone to erosion and landslides, as seen after the 2018 Thomas Fire, which can pose serious threats to communities even after the fire has been put out.

Additionally, fires in the WUI burn houses, cars, and other unnatural materials that are then disseminated into the environment through smoke, runoff, and groundwater infiltration (Stein et al, 2012). Smoke can travel hundreds or thousands of miles, and result in severe air quality impacts that are especially dangerous for populations that are already facing disproportionate pollution burdens. Wildfire smoke has also been associated with long-term physical health impacts and an increased likelihood of mental health issues. One recent study found that wildfire smoke, made up of tiny particles called PM2.5, can penetrate into the human respiratory tract, enter the bloodstream, and impair vital organs, making it several times more harmful to humans than car exhaust and other known sources of particulate matter (Aguilera et al, 2021).

Prescribed burn in TomKat Ranch, Pescadero. Karl Nielsen/Greenbelt Alliance

Conserving Greenbelts to Reduce Wildfire Risk

Greenbelts can be open spaces, parks, preserves, and agricultural lands which surround or are adjacent to a city or urbanized area, and that restrict or prohibit residential, commercial, and industrial development. Greenbelt zones strategically planned and placed inside subdivisions and communities, as well as recreational greenways such as bike paths, playing fields, and golf courses, are also “greenbelt types” that can play a role in reducing wildfire risk. Wildlands or forest-type landscapes are not included in this definition of greenbelts.

The four greenbelt types are described in-depth in the white paper “The Critical Role of Greenbelts in Wildfire Resilience“, released in June 2021 by Greenbelt Alliance. Infographic by Shawn Hazen.

Greenbelts play a beneficial role in reducing wildfire risk and improving resilience in several ways:

  • Serving as strategic locations for wildfire defense and temporary refuge areas (TRAs)
  • Acting as natural wildfire buffers to create separation from wildlands
  • Increasing overall wildfire resilience through land stewardship
  • Conserving biodiversity in fire-adapted lands while reducing wildfire risk
  • Providing wildfire resistant green spaces inside and surrounding neighborhoods

Lands in close proximity to high wildfire risk communities such as existing parks, open spaces, and preserves can serve multiple functions to reduce wildfire hazards and risk if properly managed. Ecologically sound and site-specific land stewardship before and after wildfires in parks, open spaces, and preserves can contribute to the overall climate resilience by restoring ecosystems adapted to beneficial fire regimes. This can reduce the size and number of extreme wildfires that threaten communities and conserve biodiversity.

Agricultural lands have played a significant role in lowering wildfire risk and damages to homes and communities during wildfires in Sonoma County and elsewhere in Northern California. While agricultural lands can and do burn, they generally contain less flammable biomass and tend to have relatively high water content (via irrigation) or naturally contain moisture (e.g. grapevines). Due to these properties, agricultural lands can serve as natural fuel breaks to shield neighboring homes and communities from wildfires that usually originate in nearby wildlands.

Integrating intentional and strategically situated greenbelt buffer zones into community design within neighborhoods and subdivisions can increase wildfire resilience. Establishing greenbelt buffer zones with fire-resistant landscaping in between clustered homes can serve as defensible space for both firefighting and reducing the chances that embers from an approaching wildfire will land on homes. Greenbelt buffer zones can also create more space between structures, reducing home-to-home ignition between blocks of homes, as that is often the main cause of destruction of neighborhoods, not the wildfire flames.

Policymakers must prioritize the protection, expansion, and long-term stewardship of open spaces and parks, agricultural lands, and other greenbelts in and around communities in high wildfire risk areas to reap these resilience benefits of greenbelts. Simultaneously, future growth must be channeled within existing cities and towns to address the acute housing crisis and must take a more cautious approach when adding new development in the WUI’s high wildfire risk areas that put more people in harm’s way.

For more in-depth analysis and case studies showcasing how different kinds of greenbelts can be used for wildfire risk reduction, read Greenbelt Alliance’s white paper, The Critical Role of Greenbelts in Wildfire Resilience.

Development and Wildfire Connection

Housing and wildfire risk are inextricably linked. Between 1990 and 2010, roughly half of all housing units built in California were located in the WUI (Lowrey, 2019). This unmitigated sprawl has put more people at risk while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of wildfire ignition, considering that 95% of wildland fires in California are caused by humans, both directly and indirectly (Syphard, 2015). Communities, regions, and the State must consider the role of housing, land use, and urban development in reducing wildfire risk now and into the future. Focusing new development in infill locations is essential for curbing wildfire risk, protecting natural and working lands, and reducing GHG emissions associated with suburban and exurban living.

While increasing the feasibility and scale of development is a top priority for new development, communities already living in the WUI and those that may soon be developed in the WUI also need tools for safely living with fire. Medium-density development in the wildland-urban interface presents the highest risk of loss of lives and homes to wildfire. It’s not the shape and steepness of the land (topography), not the types of trees and brush that grow there (fuel load), not the gaps between a house and trees that fire has to cross (defensible space), not even how likely a building’s materials are to catch fire (home construction)—the highest risk factor is the arrangement of homes in medium-density subdivisions and rural communities in fire-prone landscapes (Syphard, 2012). Placing homes in cities and towns near services, jobs, and transit provides the least wildfire risk. This is further detailed in Syphard’s Fire-Housing Density Risk Curve (below) and in addition, recent studies point to medium-density development as being most vulnerable to wildfire (Syphard et al, 2021).

Alexandra D. Syphard et al., “Housing patterns, wildfire, and community vulnerability: Historical perspective and future possibilities”, Living with Fire Symposium, May 2018

Land use should reflect the best available fire science through design guidelines and appropriate planning and policy decisions. New growth should be concentrated in developed areas and paired with fire-safe regulations and designs when in WUI locations. California, and the Bay Area in particular, must build and maintain an appropriate supply of homes in resilient infill locations to avoid further expanding into wildlands and exacerbating existing wildfire risk.

The town of Los Gatos is nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, in Santa Clara County, with approximately one-quarter of the town’s homes located in the WUI. After the devastating 2020 CZU Lighting Complex fires that spread over 86,000 acres in neighboring Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, the Los Gatos Town Council sprung to action and approved the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee to study wildfire mitigation in the town’s WUI areas and report back with findings in two month’s time. The Ad Hoc Committee consisted of the Mayor, Town staff, representatives from the Santa Clara Fire Department, and resident stakeholders.

The Committee produced a report of their findings with clear goals, action items, prioritization, and evaluation metrics that provided Town leaders with clear first steps that were financially feasible. Los Gatos was able to secure General Fund allocations for vegetation management projects along key evacuation routes in the WUI (a priority item from the report) and staff is currently pursuing grant funds to support other priority action items.

The Town of Los Gatos has also used legislative action to enact more stringent defensible space and home hardening requirements (as compared to state requirements) through the adoption of city ordinance. This ordinance provides guidance on how to manage and maintain defensible space in various scenarios and defines penalties for violation. In all, Los Gatos demonstrated how a community can take small but powerful first steps in mitigating the danger of wildfire in high-risk areas.

Critical Actions to Take Now

  • Encourage high-density development in infill locations to prevent increased sprawl and WUI development. Adopt policies that emphasize development in safe infill locations, amend zoning regulations as necessary to provide for more housing in low-risk areas, and streamline permit processing for development in low-risk areas. Aligning public and private resources to support the construction of affordable housing in these areas is imperative for successful, long-term, wildfire risk mitigation. In recognizing that some development will likely still occur in the WUI, policies should distinguish between areas that are already developed where urbanization could be further encouraged, and undeveloped areas where conservation efforts—like permanently protecting greenbelts—should be pursued.
  • Accelerate greenbelts as nature-based solutions to wildfire resilience and risk reduction. Prioritize greenbelts as a strategic defense against wildfire. Policies should require or strongly encourage the conservation of undeveloped land in high fire risk areas to create defensible space and natural wildfire buffers, and to preserve the rich biodiversity in wildfire-prone areas. Policies for proactive vegetation management should be developed and Best Management Practices for natural and working lands should be established by region and habitat type. Management plans should take a balanced approach including prescribed burning, selective harvest, non-commercial thinning, grazing, and traditional forest treatment as practiced by tribes. Consulting with local Tribal Governments where feasible is important to consider when identifying, establishing, and stewarding greenbelts for wildfire defense and resilience.
  • Update and strengthen WUI land-use policies and building codes. Encourage the use of a multi-hazard approach in considering where new development should be either encouraged or discouraged. Support development of uniform standards and resilient growth management strategies for towns and cities with homes currently located in the WUI. Policies should include programs to harden existing structures (including financial assistance for low-income communities for home hardening), develop standards for the creation and preservation of defensible space, and create fire-safe road conditions, evacuation plans, and hardened community refuges of last resort (e.g. schools or hospitals). Available data supports aggressive policy-making in this area as home hardening and defensible space close to the home have proven to be the most important measures that can be taken to reduce the chances of ignition from embers and approaching wildfires.
  • Maintain partnerships, coordinate complementary programs to incentivize risk reduction, and enhance compliance and enforcement with existing policies. Support regional planning efforts, as well as the incorporation of wildfire protection and resilience policies into city and county General Plans in Safety, Housing, Transportation, and Sustainability Elements. Advocate for the adoption of complementary policies at the regional, county, city, community, and parcel scale.
  • Conduct broad stakeholder engagement, especially with Indigenous peoples who have familiarity and traditional knowledge of the land. Land rights, recognition, and repatriation should be considered in direct and specific engagement with Tribal Governments through a formal engagement process and should align with their priorities and decisions when identifying greenbelt lands for permanent protection, particularly when public funds are at play.

Policy Matrix

Encourage high-density development in infill locations to prevent increased sprawl and WUI development.
Strategy Actions Source
Support policies that emphasize development in safe infill locations, amending zoning regulations as necessary. Increase development potential in high-resource infill locations through upzoning, streamlined permitting procedures, and fee exemptions (where appropriate).
Prioritize infill development opportunities and the reuse of existing vacant commercial space to grow the city’s base of residents and employment to ensure long-term fiscal sustainability and promote conservation of natural open space. Diamond Bar General Plan Land Use and Economic Development
Accelerate greenbelts as nature-based solutions to wildfire resilience and risk reduction.
Strategy Actions Source
Prioritize increasing greenbelts as strategic locations for wildfire defense through policy and planning. Identify existing greenbelts and the best locations for new greenbelts for wildfire defense and risk reduction. Incorporate these locations into comprehensive wildfire planning at regional, county, city, and community levels and in all Municipal Service Reviews. The Critical Role of Greenbelts in Wildfire Resilience (Greenbelt Alliance)
Adopt (or renew) local policies that maintain space between cities including urban growth boundaries (UGBs), urban limit lines (ULLs), and community separators—preferably voter approved—to contain growth, prevent sprawl, and reduce wildfire risk.
Identify and maintain access to low-risk fire safety areas, including locations that may serve as temporary shelter or refuge during wildfire events. Cloverdale General Plan Policy Document
Communities and new developments should incorporate greenbelt zones and recreational zones into the design and placement of homes in a way designed specifically to reduce wildfire risk. Create zoning to require communities to be more wildfire resistant by establishing greenbelt zones for carefully landscaped areas inside and around neighborhoods and subdivisions, different from landscape-scale open space buffers and large fuel breaks. The Critical Role of Greenbelts in Wildfire Resilience (Greenbelt Alliance)
Require that residential subdivisions be planned to conserve open space and natural resources, protect agricultural operations including grazing, increase fire safety and defensibility, reduce impervious footprints, use sustainable development practices, and, when appropriate, provide public amenities. San Diego County General Plan Land Use Element
Subdivisions within State Responsibility Area (SRA) high and very high fire severity classification areas shall explicitly consider designs and layout to reduce wildfire hazards and improve defensibility. For example, requiring clustering of lots in defensible areas, managed greenbelts, water storage, perimeter roads, firesafe roadway layout and design, slope development constraints, fuel modification plans, and vegetation setbacks. Humboldt County General Plan Safety Element
Site subdivisions relative to landscape features that can act as buffers from oncoming wildfires (like lakes, agricultural lands, and maintained parks and greenbelts). Building to Coexist with Fire: Community Risk Reduction Measures for New Development in California
Preference vegetation that has relatively high water content in vegetated areas serving as greenbelts or wildfire buffers to avoid ignition. Building to Coexist with Fire: Community Risk Reduction Measures for New Development in California
Explore feasibility of a new Community Wildfire Resilience Zone around communities in high fire risk areas. Assess feasibility of creating a Community Wildfire Resilience Zone in the one-quarter-mile area around communities in high and very high fire hazard severity zones to promote responsible land uses, guide land stewardship activities, and provide permanent and consistent risk reduction.
Enhance stewardship on greenbelts to return beneficial wildfire regimes and increase overall wildfire resilience of the landscapes. Establish best management practices for natural and working lands by habitat types to restore beneficial wildfire regimes, managing natural and working lands in ways that are sensitive to native habitats while increasing urban greening and carbon sequestration to the greatest extent feasible.
Encourage land management plans to incorporate prescribed burning, selective harvest, non-commercial thinning, and traditional forest treatment as practiced by tribes.
Encourage open space preservation and conservation of sensitive areas within natural and working lands, including wildlands, to achieve multiple benefits including (but not limited to) species and habitat protection, agricultural and forest resource protection, water quality, carbon sequestration and storage, and wildfire hazard and risk mitigation. OPR Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory
Create a Wildland Fire Suppression Benefit Assessment District to fund vegetation management efforts, support defensible space maintenance on private property, and create fire breaks, greenbelts, and staging areas in strategic locations. Santa Barbara Resolution
Update land-use policies and regulations to increase wildfire resilience, including updating and strengthening WUI land use and building codes.
Strategy Actions Source
Minimize development in locations where fire risk is significant, or where multiple hazards (earthquake, landslide, etc.) overlap. Require proposed developments in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), including the Very High Fire Hazard Severity zone, to investigate a site’s vulnerability to fire and to minimize risk to the greatest extent feasible. Santa Rosa General Plan
Regulate development in and adjacent to areas with steep canyons, arroyos and fire-prone vegetation. Santa Cruz General Plan
Avoid expanding new development, critical facilities, and infrastructure in areas subject to extreme threat or high risk, such as High or Very High FHSZs or areas classified by CAL FIRE as having an Extreme Threat classification on Fire Threat maps, unless all feasible risk reduction measures have been incorporated into project designs or conditions of approval. OPR Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory
Update local zoning and subdivision codes to designate wildfire hazard overlay zones and associated conditional use, site development standards, and design criteria to mitigate wildfire hazards and reduce risks to new development within the overlay zones. OPR Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory
Design new development to minimize fire hazards. Densities, land uses, and site plans should reflect the level of wildfire risk and evacuation capacity at a given location. San Rafael General Plan
Build safer in the WUI by making new development more resilient to wildfire. Require all new developments in high and very high FHSZs to complete and implement a wildfire mitigation plan specific to that development, subject to review and approval by the City, which shall be incorporated as part of the development plan approved for that development. Palm Coast Comprehensive Plan and Vision Statement
Update local ordinances to create a wildfire overlay zone including special conditions for development in these areas and work with the County to also participate in the overlay zone for their development in these areas. Smithfield City General Plan
Require clustering of planned development to protect natural resources and views and allow for siting that is sensitive to adjacent uses. Santa Cruz General Plan
Require new development in areas susceptible to wildfires to be responsible for fire prevention activities (e.g., visible house numbering and use of fireresistant and fire-retardant building and landscape materials) and to also provide a defensible zone to inhibit the spread of wildfires. Santa Cruz General Plan
Require stronger standards for existing development and support uniform standards and resilient growth management strategies for towns and cities with homes currently located in the WUI. Implement Municipal Code standards to reduce fire hazards in high fire risk areas, including enforcement of vegetation management requirements and the designation of a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Zone. Periodically update these standards and the WUI map to implement Wildfire Action Plan measures and other programs to further reduce wildfire risks. San Rafael General Plan
Conduct thorough review of all community regulations to identify all provisions that impact wildfire mitigation and then ensure that proposed WUI regulations are consistent with existing standards. NFPA Community Wildfire Safety Through Regulation
Create local defensible space requirements and guidelines that are aligned with both state mandates and with existing local law. This may take the form of clearly delineating ignition zones and maintenance requirements and should likely be accompanied by penalties for non-compliance. NFPA Community Wildfire Safety Through Regulation
Implement policies and programs that allow for safe, efficient, and effective evacuation and refuge. Update existing emergency preparedness and response plans and conduct community-facing exercises to enhance disaster preparedness and build local capacity to better address and mitigate health and safety impacts resulting from wildfires. OPR Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory
Adopt Fire-Safe Road Regulations that go beyond state minimums to ensure safe evacuation routes and accessibility by firefighting equipment. Consider regulations that also establish vegetation management practices along high-risk roadways. Apply fire-safe roads regulations to all new residential, commercial, and industrial development in the SRA and LRA (VHFHSZ).
Study and identify evacuation routes in WUI locations. Then develop a plan for ensuring evacuation routes are able to accomodate safe ingress and egress during emergency events.
Maintain partnerships and incorporate complimentary programs with regional jurisdictions, tribal governments, and property owners to incentivize coordinated risk reduction, enhance compliance and enforcement with existing policies.
Strategy Actions Source
Plan and develop mechanisms to enable wildfire mitigation and land management activities at a regional and community scale. Develop mechanisms for working with neighboring cities to coordinate mitigation efforts and jointly advocate for, plan for, and implement vegetation management, fire-safe roads, safe evacuation routes, and other fire mitigation strategies that have impacts across jurisdictions. Pursue MOUs, working groups, or special districts for coordinating efforts.
Consider forming a Fire Safety Committee, or equivalent, bringing together the multiple local, state, and federal fire districts and agencies countywide to review the effectiveness of the fire protection policies in the General Plan and Municipal Code at least once every five years. Calaveras County General Plan Safety Element
Establish mechanisms to maintain partnerships with tribal governments, state, local, and federal agencies to identify, prioritize, and implement fire prevention and protection measures. Santa Barbara County Comprehensive Plan Seismic Safety & Safety Element
Encourage communities to participate in the FireWise USA program, which has been successful in empowering communities to manage their own fire risk through mitigation and eduation activities. Actions taken through FireWise have even been paried with insurance coverage in some locations. APA Multihazard Planning Framework for Communities in the Wildland-Urban Interface
Ensure that all public and private property owners are maintaining the mandated defensible spaces and wildfire-related policies are being implemented. Conduct annual defensible space inspections and enforce compliance with state and local fire codes. Consider partnerships with community and neighborhood organizations as well as the local Fire Department to educate property owners and incentivize compliance.
Develop incentives, such as certification programs, for homeowners who go beyond minimum building codes and standards that can help reduce insurance costs.
Develop a comprehensive WUI risk reduction program and associated funding/financing for existing development to improve defensible space, increase home and structural hardening, and increase vegetation and fuels management in wildland areas adjacent to existing development. OPR Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory
Develop a wildfire preparedness document where all policies and recommended actions are compiled. This can serve as a reference for policy-makers and elected officials.