A destroyed vehicle rests under a carport after the Valley Fire raged through Middletown, California. REUTERS/Noah Berger

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.

In this map of California’s wildland-urban interface, yellow and orange sections show, respectively, housing that borders or is mixed in with natural, undeveloped lands. Red areas show medium- and high-housing density in non-vegetated areas. (U.S. Forest Service)

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    The ‘Marie Kondo Effect’ Comes at a Weird Time for Thrift Stores

    Netflix’s hit show has everyone tidying up, but that's not the only reason second-hand stores are being flooded with donations.

  2. A man carrying a young boy on his shoulders amid the fall foliage of New York's Central Park.
    Life

    Which U.S. Cities Have the Most Families With Kids?

    Spoiler alert: It’s simply not the case that families with kids have disappeared from urban America.

  3. A photo of President Donald Trump showing off U.S.-Mexico border wall prototypes in March 2018.
    Perspective

    This Isn't a Border Wall: It's a Monument to White Supremacy

    Like Confederate monuments, President Trump’s vision of a massive wall along the Mexican border is about propaganda and racial oppression, not national security.

  4. Inscriptions on a Confederate monument in Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama.
    Equity

    Alabama Can’t Make Birmingham Display Confederate Monument

    The legal decision was monumental both for its dismantling of a pro-Confederate law and the implications for cities’ rights in the face of states’ rights.

  5. A photo of a DART light rail train in Dallas, Texas.
    Transportation

    What Cities Are Getting Wrong About Public Transportation

    Cities could get more people walking, biking, and riding transit, according to a new report, if they just know where to look for improvement.