22 December 2017

Building on the Wildland-Urban Interface (like Carbon Canyon)

Yesterday marked the first day of winter and, while temperatures last night dropped to freezing here in Sleepy Hollow, December has been more like June.  The first half of the month had temperatures routinely in the 80s while humidity was in single digits and Santa Ana winds have been a regular feature.  Precipitation for the season starting the first of October stands at 12/100th of an inch.  The reduction in daytime temperatures will give way yet again in the next few days to more high pressure parks over the region and Sunday will be 5-10 degrees above what has been called "normal."

The Thomas fire, which broke out north of Santa Paula in Ventura County nearly three weeks ago, raced west and north and has burned nearly 275,000 acres, making it the second [correction, as of later today, the Thomas fire has become the largest, surpassing 2003's Cedar fire in San Diego County] largest wildfire in modern California history, and other fires wreaked havoc.  This fall, including the disastrous conflagrations in Santa Rosa and Sonoma and nearby areas and the fires near Corona in this region, has been an historic one for wildfires.

Wednesday's main editorial in the Los Angeles Times asked a perfectly reasonable question in its headline: Where can we still build?  Routinely, it is brought up that there is "a debilitating housing shortage" in California that sends housing prices, including rent, skyrocketing.  Estimates are that some 3.5 million housing units are needed in the next seven years to meet demand.  As the paper notes:
This fall's devastating wildfires have reopened the debate over whether it's possible to build (or rebuild) safely in high-risk areas . . . Researchers warn that this may be a taste of what's to come as global warming fuels larger and more frequent wildfires, and as new development creeps further into the wildland-urban interfaces where homes and offices abut foothills, forests or other open land.
There is talk about having state, county and municipal government, developers and the residents of new developments absorb the costs of the destruction wrought by fires in places where new housing projects "impinge upon wildlands."

The editorial rightly observes, however, that there are other areas of growing risk.  Melting polar ice is calculated to raise sea levels some ten feet by the latter part of this century.  Intense droughts will be punctuated by periods of heavy rain, bringing immediate flooding, and voluminous snowpacks, delaying deluges until the melting takes place.  Recall that the aging and deteriorating Oroville Dam very nearly collapsed earlier this year after a winter of significant rain and snow.

Then, there is the risk in urban areas, such as neary traffic-clogged freeways where cars with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines sit idling and sending toxic fumes into nearby areas or (and this was not mentioned in the editorial) near places like the ports at Wilmington/San Pedro and Long Beach or near industrial areas, where health risks are acute.

What the Times counsels is that
California will increasingly have to develop and redevelop in cities and in established residential neighborhoods.  Cities have to grow inward—with more development on vacant or underused lots amid buildings, greater density and more housing closer to workplaces and transit hubs.
The editorial acknowledges that "that's rarely easy" with high land costs and prevailing attitudes from the public and elected officials to accept the idea of change.  But, as it concludes
Simply staying the course, however, is not an option.   The status quo leaves too many pople in too much risk.
What this means for places like Carbon Canyon is what's been talked about on this blog and many other places at some length.  Existing paradigms about regional development which in some respects date back many decades are outdated and outmoded.  Residents and local staff and elected officials have to look at that status quo and make a risk assessment.

For the Canyon, this means asking: is it worth adding housing in the urban-wildland interface, particularly with hill and ridge top locations, when the risks of more frequent wildfires of greater intensity, which have been predicted and are now occurring generally as forecast, increase?  As water supply faces greater uncertainty?  As more severe droughts, interspersed with occasional heavy rainfall, raise the threat of wildfire and flooding?  As the resources used to respond to natural and man-made disasters are further stretched?

Conditions are clearly changing, but the paradigm shift is slower in response.  The status quo is not only not working, it is engendering greater risk.  Those of us who chose to live here have to deal with those consequences of our actions now, but if the risk is greater, why literally play with fire?

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