The population of the vast Sierra Nevada region continues to surge, increasing the risk of wildfire, unwieldy public expenditures and loss of life, according to a new report released by the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
As much as 94 percent of the land slated for rural residential development is classified as very high or extreme fire hazard by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to a new report.
"The combination of population growth and climate change in our fire-prone region is creating a perfect fire storm where increasing numbers of people and homes will be at greater risk of catastrophic wildfire," the 42-page study says.
The Sierra Nevada is the third-fastest growing region in the state and is expected to triple by 2040, said the report, titled "Dangerous Development: Wildfire and Rural Sprawl in the Sierra Nevada."
It describes the region as a "400-mile region (that) includes portions of 22 California counties and is home to about 600,000 people." The Alliance is a coalition of 80 environmental groups working to protect the entire mountain range.
Although western Nevada County is growing more slowly than other parts of the region, similar wildfire threats still exist for homeowners.
Fires such as the devastating Angora Fire that burned 242 homes in South Lake Tahoe this summer are expected to rise as more people migrate into the urban interface areas adjacent to forest land where a century of fire suppression has caused a buildup of dry flammable fuels, the report said.
"With a wind-driven fire on the right kind of day, we could stand to lose a lot of houses," said Tim Fike, fire chief for Nevada City Consolidated Fire.
Fighting fires is expensive. A federal audit found that the U.S. Forest Service spends $1 billion annually protecting homes adjacent to national forest land, the report said. Another federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management, doesn't have enough money in its coffers to clear brush-choked lands dotting many residential areas in western Nevada County, The Union reported on Monday.
Urban interface fires are dangerous. Beyond combating a rapidly moving blaze, firefighters must lead evacuations and avoid fallen power lines, exploding propane tanks and toxic smoke caused by a burning assortment of unknown household chemicals.
"Imagine what's in every garage in the world," Fike said.
He fought fires all throughout the West this summer in California, Oregon and Montana and witnessed the same conditions everywhere: unhealthy forests with unusually dry conditions, record-breaking temperatures and fuel moistures.
"We've been doing a real good job of putting out fires. In the meantime, nature is out of balance," Fike said.
Despite the danger, retiring Baby Boomers and "equity refuges" are drawn to the region, said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch.
Nevada City-based Sierra Watch keeps tabs on development in the Sierra, including a 950-unit "leap frog" development proposal for Donner Summit situated in terrain
ripe for wildfire.
"There is a lot of development coming," Mooers said.
But cities and counties can limit the threat of wildfire with careful planning, according to the Sierra Nevada Alliance's report.
The Alliance report calls on cities, counties and developers to consider "fire smart growth" at the planning stage to minimize fire danger to mountain neighborhoods.
The report recommends concentric outward growth and clustered developments mirroring historic towns such as Nevada City and Truckee while discouraging low-density ranchettes set on sprawling acreage.
"We've been learning over and over again that's the type of development that makes sense," Mooers said.
A suburban subdivision designed for the flatlands of the valley isn't going to work in a rural and rugged wildfire-prone landscape, said County Supervisor Hank Weston, who said planners have shifted their views of fire and development in the 45 years he's been in the business.
"There are a lot more things going into planning than there used to be," Weston said.
During the planning process of Deer Creek Park II in Nevada City, developers called on fire officials for input and agreed to clear and maintain a greenbelt around the perimeter of homes. Fike said the development is an example of what firefighters are trying to achieve with future growth.
"Essentially, the idea was we would not have to evacuate anyone from the development. It's completely defensible," Fike said.
Firefighters still face numerous challenges with existing homeowners, however. The majority of people living in wooded seclusion in western Nevada County still refuse to clear 100 feet around their homes as required by state law, said Fike.
Homeowners argue that clearing the brush and small trees strips them of their privacy, costs too much or degrades the environment, Fike said.
Californians have grown numb to the threat of wildfire and aren't taking it seriously, Fike said.
Weston agreed. "You can educate for so long. At some point, it will end. Enforcement will probably get stronger as people ignore compliance regulations," he said.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@the union.com or call 477-4231.