Thomas Elias: Fires may change much of California, not just urban interfaces
December 7, 2018
It's obvious the huge, fast-moving and devastating wildfires of the last two autumns changed the face of parts of California. Large swaths of onetime woodland and brush are now blackened; former luxury homes – and simpler ones, too – became mere rubble and concrete pads.
Many courageous homeowners, some burned out once and others repeat victims, some famous and others just folks, are determined to risk their lives and property again in exchange for the joys of living amid nature's beauty for at least another 10 or 15 years. It usually takes that long for plant life to regenerate enough to fuel another big conflagration.
Rebuilding has already begun in some places. In neighborhoods turned to ash last year, the sounds of hammers, saws and building supply trucks are now common, with contractors in demand.
And yet … with each passing fire season, cries grow louder to restrict the rebuilds. Questions arise about whether all insurance customers should see higher rates so that a privileged few can live the life they choose. Outcries against allowing routine rebuilding in the areas called "urban interfaces" grow louder each fire season.
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There's also the question of utility rates: Should all consumers pay so that power lines can be strung in fire-prone areas where large numbers of homes will predictably burn?
These are valid questions, but they beg another one: If rebuilding and expansion of new housing is banned in the fire-prone areas containing much remaining undeveloped land, where do we put new housing?
There's already a housing shortage, just now felt strongest by the thousands displaced in this fall's fires that destroyed the Butte County city of Paradise and smaller towns around it, along with hundreds of homes in Malibu, Thousand Oaks, Oak Park and other areas northwest of Los Angeles. Some victims, especially those who were underinsured, can't even find temporary shelter outside mass civically-run facilities.
If California doesn't allow rebuilding in place or expand development in the burned areas, how will it grow housing in the state by about 3 million units over the next 10 years, as Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom advocated during his election campaign?
Almost inevitably, the answer will include rezoning and dense new inbuilding in places considered built out for much of the last century.
Just such a plan was pushed in the Legislature last year by Newsom's fellow San Franciscan, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener. It didn't last long, predictably shot down by city officials vowing to fight for local control and against Wiener's plan for zoning nullification.
Known as SB 827, that plan would have prevented localities from regulating housing construction within half a mile of frequently used transit stops, whether rail or bus. In wide areas, it would have mandated housing density seldom seen in California outside the downtowns of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, with minimum heights of 45 feet to 85 feet in many places, making eight-story high-rise buildings common in many low-rise parts of the state.
This plan won backing from high-tech moguls including the CEOs of Twitter, Mozilla and others headquartered in the densest parts of San Francisco.
The plan would change the character of California more than anything since the advent of the automobile, and it still might happen.
For without intense inbuilding in areas that are already built up, many of the needed new units will appear on urban fringes where wildfires are sadly predictable.
Yes, Wiener's bill drew strong opposition from residents and governments as geographically diverse as Mill Valley and Santa Monica. But without rebuilding and new building in the fire areas, pressure for such a plan will keep rising as the housing crunch worsens, steadily at times, but also with sudden increases like what has followed the frightening, spectacular fall fires.
All of which means the blazes that have already degraded the look of hundreds of thousands of acres might soon change the character of California itself, including areas never touched by any major fire.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit http://www.californiafocus.net.
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