Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Suburban development along forest fringes puts people directly at risk—and contributes to climate change.
On Tuesday at COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, global leaders are talking about forests, and how to protect and restore the world’s remaining wooded lands. The focus is primarily on halting global deforestation, which comes largely from industries like logging, agriculture, and ranching. But officials would be wise to keep in mind that deforestation is also occurring as a result of suburban housing development.
A 2013 report prepared for the California Energy Commission found that development in California results in an annual loss of 110 acres of trees— deforestation that releases stored carbon dioxide and adds to atmospheric warming. That’s a small amount of land compared to the number of acres used for logging in California, but it is significant, especially considering how development along forest fringes is spreading all over the West. As this development sprawls into naturally forested areas, it contributes to climate change.
And the people who move to these areas soon find themselves, perhaps unwittingly, living in the line of fire.
Take Middletown, California, a town of 1,200 tucked into the pines about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Developed first as a mining town in the 19th century, the Lake County community boomed when Bay Area housing began to price out workers in the 1990s. The rustic isolation of Middletown’s single-family cabins and ranchettes appealed to many families. In September 2015, it also helped destroy their homes.
The Valley Fire, one of the worst wildfires in California history, rolled down the drought-sapped Mayacamas Mountains straight towards Middletown. All told, 585 homes burned in the town, while nearly 80,000 acres, thousands of structures, and four lives were claimed by the blaze across the Lake County area. In spite of FEMA assistance, many Middletown residents are still homeless.
Middletown is one of many mountain communities that’s been smothered by California’s historic year in wildfires (nearby Hidden Valley Lake is another). The devastation is tragic, and the recovery will be lengthy and expensive. And what happened with the Valley Fire illustrates the risk that developers and homebuyers shoulder when they settle in the most fire-prone areas.
All across the naturally arid West, millions of housing units have been added to the fringes of undeveloped, natural lands—the U.S. Forest Service calls this the “wildland-urban interface”—since the 1990s. By extension, more people now live on the front lines of wildfires, which are likely to become more frequent and severe in an era of climate change.
“[Lake County] didn't have this kind of population 50 to 70 years ago, which is no less true in Southern California,” Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, told the Los Angeles Times in September. “These fires [are] not only big and fast-moving; the fact that they're overrunning human settlement is new.”
So how can policy leaders gathered in Paris—from all levels of government—mitigate the hazards of major fires? From a wildfire management perspective, prescribed burns and strategic tree thinning would help to restore native plant communities and make them more resilient to large fires, scientists say. From a planning view, reigning in sprawl through infill, zoning ordinances that allow greater density, and stronger land conservation laws would help ease wildfire-related losses, and potentially decrease residential and vehicle emissions.
If we keep choosing to develop forests into homes, we’ll keep getting burned. Leaders at COP21 better know.