How California cities can tackle wildfire prevention

Source(s): CityLab
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By Karim Doumar


The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection recommends that homes in the WUI have between 30 and 100 feet of defensible space (with little to no other flammable structures or plant life) to prevent fires from quickly and easily hopping from home to home. But in Berkeley, a 100-year-old and increasingly dense community, many of the houses are already built, sometimes as little as eight feet away from each other, Wengraf says.

Another aspect: tree removal. During the 1991 Tunnel Fire, eye-witnesses told harrowing stories of sparks landing on eucalyptus tree groves that would then instantly explode into flames. These trees continue to dot the East Bay hills in huge numbers, not just on private properties, but on public parks and university land, too.


Although Berkeley does have rules that require plant management on private property, they’re not enforced proactively. “Right now, it’s all complaint-driven,” [Susan Wengraf, a council member in the City of Berkeley,] told me. “If there’s a property that your neighbor considers a nuisance, you can call it in and request an inspection.” Still, the city rarely issues citations, and many residents don’t have the funds to remove the highly flammable trees. It’s part of a larger trend throughout the state, according to Edith Hannigan, the land-use planning program manager at the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. “A lot of times it just comes down to money, and there’s only so much of it,” she said.

Jurisdiction is also complicated. The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, and CAL Fire, the state fire commission, only have the authority to regulate state lands. The board provides recommendations to cities, but those cities are free to ignore them as they see fit.


Another problem is that when resources can be found and allocated, policymakers tend to react to large fires with a greater emphasis on fire suppression and not fire mitigation. A survey of eight communities with histories of fire by the University of Wisconsin showed that they almost always react by putting more funding toward emergency response, and not mitigation.


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Hazards Wildfire
Country and region United States of America
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