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Some Thoughts on Preventing and Mitigating Future Wildfires

I’m going to go far outside of my domain knowledge in this post. But I’ve been troubled by our area’s experience with wildfires this year and I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about what we can do. Now, let me be clear that I have no expertise in this area and I assume that much of what I’m about to write is wrong. Yet, I feel compelled to contribute my thoughts to the conversation that we should be having: How do we prevent and mitigate future wildfires? How do we reduce the probability that this could occur again? Here, then, I humbly submit some thoughts for discussion:

Change our building codes to make it easier to use alternative building styles that are more disaster-resistant.

Virtually every house in the US is built using light-frame construction. But cob, adobe and rammed earth homes seem to offer the promise of a greater ability to withstand wildfires and, in some cases, earthquakes. Other materials and methods, such as living roofs, may also offer promise.

Unfortunately, our building codes make few or no provisions for some of these techniques. Other localities do allow them and, by now, there is sufficient literature available to study the pros and cons of these techniques. Our counties and municipalities could come together, at negligible cost, to create a commission that could look at how we might change our code to make it easy to build these types of homes.

It is unlikely many people would embrace these new building styles, at least at first. But some would. And since this change would cost nearly nothing, especially if split among local governments, it seems a no-brainer. Every time we build a home in a more fire-resistant manner, we not only reduce the probability that its residents will suffer tragedy, but we reduce the overall fire danger to the broader community. And who knows, maybe in a few decades, most new construction would be highly fire-resistant homes.

Create tighter codes for the most fire-prone areas.

Some areas in our region are particularly vulnerable to wildfires. Fountaingrove is an unfortunate example. There is currently some debate as to whether we should rebuild Fountaingrove. We will. The only other options are to confiscate the value of people’s home sites – a tremendous amount of most families’ wealth – while they are already suffering; or to buy those home sites – something we can’t afford.

There is another way. Fountaingrove and other areas should be built to a higher fire prevention standard. After these latest fires, I researched what I could do to improve my own home’s fire hardness. Davis has a great resource for this. There are many ways in which my home can be improved. The same goes for many homes in fire-prone areas.

Some changes could be cost-prohibitive, but many are perfectly affordable. With all the research available on this topic, current government staff should be able to draft new guidelines, with cost estimates, for approval by our elected officials.

Universal fire prevention education outreach.

As I stated before, there is a wide gap between how fire resistant my home is and how fire resistant it could be. I had no idea until after the fires that this was the case. I bought my 2.5 acre homestead about a year ago and this whole time I’ve been ignorant of how many fire-prone features it has. All homeowners should be educated as to what they can do to make their home safer.

Of course, this costs money. I’m no fan of my property taxes (roughly $15,000 per year.) But I’m also no fan of possibly losing my home. Sonoma County’s median home price could surpass $700,000 by the end of next year. Let’s assume an average fire safety inspection and consultation of, say, 90 minutes at a cost of, say, $100 per hour. This indicates an average visit cost to a government agency of $150. Add on a written audit report for the homeowner and we can increase that to $200 or so.

I propose that upon the transaction of a property in Sonoma County, a one-time transaction tax of 0.03% is levied to pay for such a visit, including a report. Landlords could be required to share the report with tenants and to have it updated periodically. By doing this, we ensure that everyone is properly educated in fire mitigation and is reminded that they need to be prepared for wildfires. As an additional benefit, the fire auditing staff could be drafted to provide support services during a wildfire emergency.

Rethink the role of vineyards in our community.

These pictures are a stark illustration of how well vineyards serve as a firebreak. There are groups that have been able to greatly hinder the planting of new vineyards. When looking at the debate around vineyards, we should consider what role new vineyard plantings will play in the next firestorm.

An additional, ongoing fire prevention program.

We spend money on a wide variety of programs that are far less important than fire prevention and mitigation. One that comes to mind is the SMART train, funded by a roughly $100M sales tax levy of 1%. SMART sounds like a good thing, but frankly, a limited rail service that serves a few very specific sites seems far less important to me now than preventing a repeat of this year’s tragedies.

Whether funding comes from redirecting part or all of the SMART train revenues, from another program or from new revenue sources, this has to be a top priority. Now, I would leave it to the experts to figure out how best to spend this money, but I do want to throw out one recommendation.

Perhaps we can use for cost-sharing to sink our power lines and eliminate that wildfire threat. We’ll put in money, we’ll have PG&E put in money, too. While we’re at it, our meager, rural telecommunications systems in Sonoma County are both a general hindrance to our economy and a complicating issue during emergencies. Maybe we could use this opportunity to set up new communications infrastructure. It could be owned by the county, special districts, co-ops or a private enterprise and then leased out to service providers or simply owned and operated by a company like Sonic.

Maybe that’s not the best use of funds. Maybe it’s more controlled burns on private lands. Maybe it’s other fuel reduction efforts. I don’t know. I do know that we can and should do more than we are doing now.

Improve statewide efforts.

Everything I mentioned in the last section I’d like to repeat on a statewide level. We need to make this more of a priority. Again, I’ll point to the tens of billions we are spending on high-speed rail that are redundant – we already have highways and airports. I like the idea of high speed rail – and many other government programs – but we need to get our priorities straight and bolster our spending on preventing and fighting fires.

As with step 4, I’ll throw out an uneducated idea that touches on a program that we need anyways. I assume, though I may be wrong, that building out our water infrastructure would be useful for fighting and preventing fires. I wonder how bad this event could have been if it had occurred when we were leaving fields and lawns dry, especially when I see what a great firebreak some agricultural lands were during this last event. I do know that we need to do it anyways.

Recently, we had a measure on the ballot that wanted to divert high speed rail funds to water infrastructure. Unfortunately, the plan for the spending would have upended and delayed efforts already in progress and would have put undue emphasis on surface storage. Voters rightfully shot it down. But I would like to see a measure aimed at commandeering these funds, or redirecting other funds and using them for fire prevention and/or water infrastructure.

Treat wildfire disasters like floods and other natural disasters.

This should go without saying, but the federal government should (a) allocate funds for wildfire relief, just as it is doing for floods; (b) not cut back wildfire prevention efforts, as the president has recently proposed; and (c) look at how it can bring its treatment of wildfires more in line with its treatment of floods and other natural disasters.

I hope to hear from my readers about this topic. I’d like to get their thoughts, especially those with relevant expertise. And, if you feel that what I have here is a decent start of a conversation, please send it to others, especially your elected officials. I’ve been amazed to see how the community has come together to help victims. Now let’s come together to prevent future victims.

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