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In the last two years, California has seen its deadliest and most destructive wildfires ever. In 2017, wildfires killed more than 40 people across the state. And then last November, 85 people died in the town of Paradise, which was destroyed by a fast-moving inferno. Now, some fire-prone communities are rethinking what wildfire resilience means, and they're asking big questions on how to live with this threat. NPR's Eric Westervelt has that story.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Dan Efseaff looks out over the Little Feather River Canyon. The Camp Fire raced up this canyon on its way to Paradise like a blowtorch to a paper funnel, incinerating most everything in its path, including scores of homes.
DAN EFSEAFF: The whole community needs some defensible space.
WESTERVELT: Efseaff is the parks and recreation director for Paradise. He has a vision, an idea for a new park that includes what might seem like a radical idea - paying people not to rebuild in this slice of canyon.
EFSEAFF: You know, we would work with either landowners on easements or looking at them from a standpoint of maybe some purchases in here.
WESTERVELT: Residents would get new green space for recreation and a vital safety buffer to help protect Paradise from future fire disasters.
EFSEAFF: There are areas that you just don't build in.
WESTERVELT: There needs to be more of these areas you just don't build in, Efseaff says, especially with the extraordinary buildup of forest fuels after a century of suppressing wildfires and a warming climate. Many veteran firefighters agree.
KEN PIMLOTT: Every year, starting at about 2014, we thought we were seeing the career fire. We thought, well, it can't get much worse. And every year, it was getting worse.
WESTERVELT: About an hour and a half south of the destroyed town of Paradise, I'm walking with Ken Pimlott, the recently retired director of Cal Fire. He fought wildfires and led firefighters for 30-plus years. We're in the Pine Hill Preserve, federal land in Cameron Park, a suburban community in the Sierra Nevada foothills, east of Sacramento.
PIMLOTT: You've got manzanita pine...
WESTERVELT: Cameron Park is a small example of a big problem across the West. Wooded backyard fences of comfortable homes mark a fragile artificial line between wildland and suburbia. It's the classic wildland-urban interface.
PIMLOTT: We really need to change the conversation to ahead of the fire occurring - how we build our homes, where we place them.
WESTERVELT: Almost half of new homes built in the U.S. are in this interface where development meets highly combustible vegetation. In California, the challenge is acute. About a quarter of the state's population - 11 million people - live in high-risk fire areas. One in three homes in the state is in this wildland-urban interface, from parts of Malibu, to the Oakland hills, to Paradise. Across the West, ever expanding development in this area, Pimlott says, is a ticking firebomb - the likely site of future Paradises.
PIMLOTT: I worry about it every day. There are hundreds of communities like those just here in California. And it's just a matter of time.
WESTERVELT: After Paradise, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency, suspending some environmental regulations to fast-track tree removal, fuel reduction and firebreaks in 35 fire-vulnerable areas around the state. He's also beefed up spending on firefighting and fire education. But fire-exposed communities want to see more, so many are now taking action, hardening their towns for wildfire like never before.
REINETTE SENUM: This community is galvanizing itself like it's galvanizing itself for a war.
WESTERVELT: Reinette Senum is the vice mayor of Nevada City. It's a gold rush-era mining town in the Sierra foothills packed with lots of lovely old Victorian homes made of wood.
SENUM: Santa Rosa, Paradise - this was the first time that we were seeing forest fires obliterate whole towns, and that was a game changer for us.
WESTERVELT: Hardening this tourist-dependent town includes a mix of low- and high-tech. Nevada City is reinstalling old-school emergency alert sirens to warn residents of a coming firestorm. Senum says the last two fire seasons exposed shocking flaws in phone and broadcast-based alert systems. In Paradise, about a third of the few who had signed up for phone warnings actually received the alert.
SENUM: And many of them perished waiting for that call or that text. We're bringing back old-fashioned, hardwired sirens with battery backup, with solar backup.
WESTERVELT: I meet Senum in a local park where brigades of brush-eating goats recently munched away built up fuel on fire-prone hillsides. Senum started a goat fund me campaign. Volunteer software engineers aligned fire-risk maps to direct the hungry goats.
SENUM: High-tech, state-of-the-art software telling us that we're doing the right thing.
WESTERVELT: Others who can afford it are doing more than brush clearing, more than the traditional defensible space they've long been asked to create by firefighters.
CHRISTINE BOTTARO: And that deck wraps around the house and it's made out of a plastic composite...
WESTERVELT: Christine Bottaro and her husband own this spacious 164-year-old home. It looks vulnerable these days, like some giant Victorian-era matchstick. But looks are deceiving. They've spent money and sweat hardening the home for wildfire.
BOTTARO: The siding of the house is actually made out of a cement composite.
WESTERVELT: Oh, this isn't wood.
BOTTARO: This part is far less flammable than wood is...
WESTERVELT: But retrofitting is expensive. And California currently does almost nothing to incentivize or help homeowners pay to retrofit their homes for wildfire safety like they do for earthquakes. A bill to create a $1 billion fund to do just that has stalled in the state legislature. The need is enormous. California has the nation's strictest building standards for fire protection, but that's only for homes built after 2008. And this is a major problem. Reports show that more than half of the homes built to those stricter codes survived the Paradise Fire, while nearly 80% of the homes built before 2008 burned.
Shaye Wolf is a climate scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
SHAYE WOLF: In this era of climate change, it's absolutely essential that the state and local governments do a much better job of preparing homes and communities to make those homes as fire resistant as possible. And that's where the money needs to be invested.
WESTERVELT: A larger lesson out of Paradise, says retired Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott, has yet to really sink in - the need, he says, for a wholesale mindset change about wildfire in the West at all levels - planners, homeowners, politicians and builders.
PIMLOTT: And that means going in and looking at - maybe making some hard decisions about, you know, where we build. These are hard decisions. They cost money. They may mean land use changes.
WESTERVELT: If we don't start making those hard decisions together, Pimlott warns...
PIMLOTT: We're going to be back in these communities, time and time again, rebuilding, spending months, looking for people - bodies of people in rubble. And we can't keep doing that.
WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Nevada City, Calif.
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