Resilient Housing against a Tougher Climate- California Wildfires

The recent California Wildfires gave us all a hint of the growing consequences of wildfires and how it can exponentially damage housing, wildlife, structures, acres of land, and many more.

New York Times

‘‘In just two weeks, the Camp Fire in Northern California has destroyed more structures than the state’s other seven worst wildfires combined.

The fire has also killed nearly three times as many people as the Griffith Park Fire — a record that stood for 85 years. And with 870 residents of Paradise and the surrounding area still missing, that total will likely rise.’’ (USA Today)

Many California residents became homeless as a result of the wildfires destroying their houses. The current discussion is how we should collectively respond as a community.

Is this the time to rebuild California and the destroyed acres, or permanently stop rebuilding in wildfire-damaged areas? Here are some fundamental conditions to consider for this question.

The labor market

Currently, finding construction workers in California is a difficult task. Market demand is high, the supply is limited; rebuilding comes at excessive costs. After the wildfire, a neighborhood in Santa Rosa was fully damaged. It was not financially feasible to rebuild the neighborhood, so the neighborhood was reduced to ashes. When there are not enough workers, it becomes a burden to rebuild fire-damaged neighborhoods. Due the labor shortage, it might be in the residents’ best interest to move somewhere else.

The rebuilding process also includes radical additional costs. According to Sean Smith, the debris coordinator of California Office of Emergency Services, debris removal will cost an estimated 1.2 billion$. The damages of the wildfires complicate financial planning; the cost of debris cleaning alone is an intractable burden. 13,503 residences, 514 businesses and 4,404 barns have been burned during the blaze, and this toll. Labor scarcity requires trade-offs during the rebuilding of residual neighborhoods.

Homeowners are at risk (again)

Global warming is not slowing down. Recent government report concluded that: ‘‘climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.’’ (NCA). Even if we do rebuild, how long is it going to take before the next wildfire wipes away surrounding neighborhoods? Each wildfire keeps sprouting its damage on communities, and community members would be forced to make rational decision if they knew their house would turn into ashes within a year. The only solution might be locating outside of the wildfire-damaged areas. This year, more than 80 people died due to the wildfires. It is best to guarantee survival first, property second.

The difficulty of removing ‘homes’

We have to recognize that people have their right make financially irrational decisions. People built their houses, chose their jobs and their children’s schools in accordance to their home. It might be fairly inconvenient to locate somewhere else. On the emotional side, a house has a sentimental value. Their house may be emblematic of a resident’s social circle, marriage, and vital life experiences. If a community demands the rebuilding of their neighborhood, and disregards the economics repercussions, it is hard to argue with why they would want their lives back the way it used to be.

Unreasonable rental cost prices

If we stop rebuilding, this implies that now we have many empty-handed people looking for a new residential area, and less housing options because of the destroyed houses. Decreased supply from damaged houses, increased demand from wildfire-victims seeking refuge. This supply-demand shock in the housing market causes rental prices to reach insurmountable heights. In Sonoma County, due to the decision that the wildfire-damaged houses would not be rebuilt, ‘‘rental costs in Sonoma County have shot up as much as 30 percent since the fires.’’ (Governing). Rebuilding destroyed neighborhoods prevents the economical domino effect that is caused by this micro-scaled migration in California neighborhoods.

UNo matter what decision we are in favor of, building resilient communities should be the priority for the next generation of housing. If we do end up rebuilding, we have to realize that there is a high probability of another wildfire occuring within a year. As National Climate Assessment reports: ‘‘[m]ore frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.’’ What are some preventative measures that can increase resilience against wildfires? Here are a few measures in rebuilding that can be the building block for resilient communities:

Mars Borough

Zoning

Zoning is a necessary step taken by governments in urban planning: ‘‘[It] is the way the governments control the physical development of land and the kinds of uses to which each individual property may be put.’’ (uwec) With this process, the land becomes divided into zones. The restriction allows sustainable city planning and urban development. Zoning regulations are commonly used in the European Union to preserve the essence, or distinctness, of an urban land. Zoning regulations would be a convenient safety precaution to decrease the amount of property damaged from a wildfire. Specifically, Euclidean zoning could produce sustaibibility: ‘‘Euclidean zoning is a zoning by specific and uniform geographical division. It is a system of zoning whereby a town or community is divided into areas in which specific uses of land are permitted.’’ (uslegal) By Euclidean zoning, the lands that are most vulnerable to wildfires can be restricted from rebuilding. The use of the lands near wildfire-sensitive areas can be used for purposes with lower opportunity costs. Or, there could be a quota for the amount and the height of buildings to reduce the amount of property damaged by the wildfires.

Special materials:

The building block of resilient communities is better construction. Here are some construction ideas that can be implemented for houses to survive wildfires.

Asphalt shingles, stale, and tiles such as metal, clay, and recycled-rubber, are great materials that are fire-resistant. Generally, cracks and openings of roofs make it easy to drive fire inside the house. It is necessary that the roof material is interlocked tightly to secure the attic from getting ignited.

Windows are the most vulnerable part of the house during wildfires. Heat quickly shatters glass; therefore a solution is necessary to cover up the weakest link of the house. Professor of Architecture, Murray Milne, suggested that: ‘‘[t]he safest solution are roll-down metal fire doors built into the roof overhangs or side recesses, and released automatically by fusible links. They will protect windows and sliding glass doors even if they are left standing open.’’ (UCLA).

Wooden doors are a gateway for fire to enter houses. Instead, considering metal doors is the most optimal solution for fire resistance. Keep in mind that all doors, including the garage door should be tightly installed. If gaps between the doors are not carefully measured, wind can easily blow the fire inside the house.

The careful distancing and categorization of the fire resistant materials of the land can prevent a wildfire. Although a wildfire can be unpredictable and deadly, the placement of materials in the garden or the protective layer of the house based on their ignition potential can diminish the danger.

Rebuild or not, it is necessary to be aware that the climate is not headed towards the right direction under the current circumstances. Building sustainable and resilient housing should be the number one priority of urban development. It is necessary for homeowners and landlords to check the fire-resistance of their home. Nothing is more economically and sentimentally challenging than seeing a house or a community being reduced to ashes.

References:

Chris Woodyard. “California’s Fire Dilemma: Rebuild Knowing Same Homes Will Burn Again?” USA Today, November 13, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/11/12/california-wildfires-fire-destroy-homes-rebuild/1985117002/.

Alan Greenblatt. “After Wildfires, Housing Crisis Complicates California’s Rebuild.” Governing, April 2018. http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-california-wildfires-homes-destroyed.html.

UWEC. “What Is Zoning,” n.d. https://people.uwec.edu/ivogeler/w270/what_is_zoning.htm.

Jim Sergent, George Petras, Karl Gelles, John Bacon. “3 Startling Facts about California’s Camp Fire.” USA Today, November 20, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/11/20/camp-fire-3-startling-facts/2064758002/.

U.S. Global Change Research Program. “Volume II: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States.” NATIONAL CLIMATE ASSESSMENT, November 2018. https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/.

Murray Milne. “Designing Your Home to Survive Wildfires.” UCLA, n.d. http://www.energy-design-tools.aud.ucla.edu/FIRES.html .

“Euclidean Zoning Law and Legal Definition.” US Legal, n.d. https://definitions.uslegal.com/e/euclidean-zoning/.