CNR Professor contributes to new plan to reduce threat of catastrophic wildfires in California

August 04, 2010

By: Jim Miller, Scripps News

California has a new road map to guide efforts to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires in the coming years and Professor Max Mortiz is on top of it all.

The strategic fire plan comes after a series of major blazes destroyed thousands of structures and killed more than two-dozen people in the past decade, with some of the heaviest damage in the San Bernardino mountains and other parts of Southern California. State spending on fighting fires has surpassed $1 billion annually in recent years.

The plan is the first since 1996 and comes several years after officials first started working on it. It includes dozens of pages of goals and objectives and calls for better communication between state and local officials on construction in fire-prone places. The plan, approved last month, also highlights an increased fire risk posed by climate change.

But the plan is advisory only, with no enforcement power. It calls for no sweeping changes in a state where disastrous wildfires are becoming more frequent, more people are living in fire-prone areas, and, experts say, the landscape is becoming more flammable.

University of California, Berkeley fire science professor Max Moritz worked on the effort. He called it a major improvement over the previous plan, which focused on putting fires out rather than preventing them in the first place.

Moritz, though, cautioned that the plan is not the "transformative" document he said California needs to face the challenges of a growing population and what some experts say is an increase in the state's dryness caused by climate change.

"We're kind of on a runaway train right now in terms of fire and development," Moritz said Wednesday. "These little steps are really important. But it's not going to solve the problem.

"We don't need another 10 years of people moving into the WUI," he added, referring to the wildland-urban interface, where homes and flammable landscape have met with devastating results several times in the past decade.

Ken Pimlott, the deputy director of Cal Fire's fire protection programs, said the strategic fire plan encompasses lessons learned from major fires in recent years.

Instead of just focusing on fire suppression, he said, it also addresses climate change, local government land use and controlling vegetation.

But no plan can be a fix-all, Pimlott said.

"Fire will always be a problem in California," said Pimlott, who sat on the steering committee. "We have to learn to be able to live with it."

George Gentry, executive officer of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the plan also includes "metrics for success" to allow officials to judge how well it's working in a few years.

"It's a living document," he said. "What we're trying to do is save lives and property and make things more resilient."

Starting in 2003, the state has been hit by a string of major wildfires. California's three largest fire years since 1950 have all occurred within the past decade.

The fires have led to several policy changes. In 2005, new rules took effect requiring property owners in high-risk areas to clear 100 feet of brush, grass and other combustible vegetation from around their houses, an increase from 30 feet.

The state also enacted fire-resistant building codes for homes in fire-prone terrain. Those took effect in July 2008. For example, roof materials need to resist ignition and vents shouldn't let embers in.

But there has been little shift in state policy governing cities and counties approving homes in at-risk areas. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed several bills that would set new rules.

This month, lawmakers will consider a measure to make counties and cities address fire prevention and protection as part of their land-use planning decisions.

The Sierra Club and unions representing firefighters back the legislation as a way to encourage local governments to be more careful about where they approve homes. Some local governments, including San Bernardino County, oppose it as unnecessary and another mandate on cash-strapped cities and counties.