The fast-moving Butte Fire burned more than 500 homes, all but one of them in Calaveras County. Nearly the entire footprint of the fire was in rural areas, although it did threaten the town of Mokelumne Hill.
Why were so many homes lost? The reasons are varied and complex, and they have serious implications for our county general plan updates.
On the first full day of the fire, before the strike teams from throughout the state began to arrive, most of the firefighting effort focused on protecting structures in the fire’s path rather than fighting the fire itself. This led the fire to spread faster, in turn putting more structures at risk. Later, as more than 500 engines responded to the massive fire, the CalFire engines, which are designed and built for wildland firefighting, could focus on the fire while engine companies from urban areas focused on home protection.
As mandatory evacuation orders were issued in Amador County, Highway 88 became a gridlocked parking lot in and around Pine Grove. Teams of volunteers worked throughout the fire in both counties to remove pets and livestock that homeowners were forced to leave behind in their haste to protect their lives.
The suppression and other state costs for the fire totaled more than $65 million and insurance losses of $900 million (although many residents were not insured). Two residents lost their lives. And now, hundreds of families are faced with the complexities of surviving a cold, wet winter and rebuilding their homes and lives.
The Butte Fire’s structure fire losses were due to development patterns that have allowed the construction of many homes on ranchette-size parcels in the wildland-urban intermix (WUI). In a major fire like the Butte, there will never be an engine for every home, and even houses with good clearance, built with fire-resistant materials, will be at risk.
So why, then, do our counties continue to allow rural sprawl development in high and very-high-risk fire areas, and what can be done? In its 2007 publication, Dangerous Development: Wildfire in the Rural Sierra Nevada, the Sierra Nevada Alliance made the following recommendations:
- Make new development pay its own way: Landowners contemplating development in high fire- threat areas should be required to pay the full cost for fire protection.
- Cluster development in and around existing communities: Local governments should en-courage infill development and concentric outward growth while discouraging low-density sprawl and leapfrog development in high-fire-hazard areas.
- Don’t build in unsafe places: Even within an area of high fire hazard, some places are more dangerous than others. New development should be curtailed in areas that put new or existing residents at greater risk.
- Manage the forested landscape to restore resiliency and reduce fire risk: State, federal and local agencies should support responsible forest management practices that restore forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic crown fire in the WUI.
- Improve planning and budgeting processes to fully address risks: All levels of government involved in wildland fire prevention and protection need to improve planning and budgeting to prepare for coordinated wildfire prevention and response.
We would add this: Don’t allow further subdivision of rural lands in high- and very-high-fire risk areas if doing so increases the fire risk to the wildland and existing residents and homes, or there are not adequate structure fire resources to protect existing homes, safe evacuation routes that allow simultaneous fire engine access, and a full complement of paid, full-time firefighters.
We hope our county supervisors will include land use lessons learned from the Butte Fire as they continue to update our county general plans. If they do not, we hope the state will step in and require them to do so as part of the plans’ Safety Elements, or better yet, beef up the Safety Element requirements in general plan law.
State action prompted by a major fire in the wildland-urban intermix would not be unprecedented. After the 49er Fire in Nevada County, the state imposed new regulations on home construction in rural areas. Public Resources Code sections 4290 and 4291 require defensible space around homes, more fire-resistant building materials, and onsite water supply. However, as the Butte Fire showed, those things alone weren’t sufficient to stop even newer homes from burning. Unfortunately, veteran Capitol watchers are not optimistic that the destructive 2015 fires will lead to changes in the state’s general plan law.