Opinion: Wildfire fear halts housing project

We’ve had some rain lately. Most people have welcomed the precipitation, and the same people are also happy when the rain stops and the sun comes out. I’m one of those people. I can’t help welcoming the sun after a bit of rain because I’m a Californian. A transplanted Californian. But the transplantation took place a little more than six decades ago, so I feel as though I’m completely Californicated.


We Californians are lucky. We’ve got beautiful beaches, fantastic ocean vistas along the central and northern coasts, majestic trees in our national parks, a Mediterranean climate that allows us to grow almost any type of vegetation, and an integrated system of higher education that facilitates the progress of a first-generation college student from entry to a community college to a doctorate at a campus of the University of California and even on to post-doctoral research within state-run facilities.


We’ve also got wildfires. Our recent rain encourages the growth of grasses and other plants which are converted to fuel as the ongoing drought continues. We don’t think about drought when our streets are slick with rainwater and there are mudslides and rockslides that shut down our highways. And we don’t think about the new plants and seedlings as conductors of life-threatening fires. But, that’s exactly what they are.


Land management


Until the middle of the 19th century, there were very few people in California. In 1848, when Alta (upper) California was ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American war, our state had about 10,000 Spanish-speaking people, 1,300 American citizens, and 500 newly-arrived Europeans of various backgrounds. Native North Americans probably numbered less than 30,000. And this tiny population was located on 164,000 square miles of land.


The same year, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and that touched off the Gold Rush and the admission of California to the union of the United States in 1850. By that time, population had increased to 93,000 non-Native American people, a six-fold increase in just two years. Then 100 years later, California’s population hit about 6 million (1950). During the following 50 years, the state had grown to 34 million (2000). Today, we’re close to 40 million.


The literal explosion of population necessitated an equally expansive development of housing, shopping centers, and businesses. And this had to be accomplished in a state that had always experienced both wildfires and burns that were controlled by Native American peoples as part of their sacred rites. It is now apparent that not much thought was put into land management. Housing and other building was done wherever land was available. And that has left us with a predicament.


Continued sprawl


Since the latter part of the last century, we’ve built more and more into areas that are prone to forest fire, and we’ve seen the dramatic and devasting results. During the past few years, whole communities have been wiped off the map, like Paradise a few years ago and Greenville this past year.


Two weeks ago in our state, a Lake County judge blocked plans for a luxury-home community to be built by Lotusland Investment Group of San Francisco. The site of the 1,400 homes was to have been in Guenoc Valley in Lake County, about 90 miles north of the City by the Bay.


Alex Xu, CEO of Lotusland Investment, said, “From the moment we saw the land at Guenoc Valley, we knew we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something special. We chose this site for its natural beauty and thus made it a priority for our project to celebrate and preserve the land in every aspect of our designs. Our hope is for our project to be the standard-bearer for future developments and will strive to demonstrate that development and responsible stewardship of the land are not mutually exclusive.”


The plan included a culinary school and five “boutique” hotels along with the houses located along a golf course to be built on the rolling hills. However, the development was criticized even before the judge’s decision.


Peter Broderick, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity voiced his opposition to the Guenoc Valley Project back in March, 2021. He said, “California has an affordable-housing crisis. This does nothing to help that crisis. This project is a playground for the one percent.”


Another statement made by then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra added the state’s concern. His office filed a motion to intervene, claiming that “the people of Lake County deserve to know about increased risks from a new development.”


The danger


The judge’s decision supported a suit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and joined by the state’s attorney general’s office which claimed that the developers did not adequately address the risk of fire. Lake County, tucked into a niche among Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties, has been the site of wildfires four times in the last ten years. And since 1952, it has suffered eleven forest fires.


Although planners did include fire-suppressing sprinklers for underground utilities and 72 miles of fire breaks, the judge said that there was insufficient preparation for the prospect of mass evacuation. That was a major factor in the destruction of Paradise and other more remote areas.


Peter Broderick added, “Developers need to start looking at the impact of development to the surrounding communities in fire-prone areas.” According to Vince DiMiceli, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, the state’s new Attorney General Rob Bonta said, “Local governments and developers have a responsibility to take a hard look at projects that exacerbate wildfire risk and endanger our communities. We can’t keep making shortsighted land use decisions that will have impacts down the line. We must build responsibly.”


Among the things that we need to think about when we build is this: houses and other structures become fuel when a wildfire reaches them. They are also conductors, which facilitate the spread of the fires. And in recent years, California’s fire season really begins on January 1 and ends on December 31.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.