A case for retreat in the age of fire

An essay from The Conversation, “A case for retreat in the age of fire.”

“It has been nearly four years since the Camp Fire, but the population of Paradise is now less than 30% of what it once was. This makes Paradise one of the first documented cases of voluntary retreat in the face of wildfire risk. And while the notion of wildfire retreat is controversial, politically fraught and not yet endorsed by the general public, as experts in urban planning and environmental design, we believe the necessity for retreat will become increasingly unavoidable.”

12 thoughts on “A case for retreat in the age of fire”

  1. Article makes some sense but misses some important points. Foremost is that closely packed, readily combustible houses are hopeless. Defensible space makes no difference in such cases. A recent Paradise (Camp) paper documented this beautifully, but Jack Cohen figured this out years ago. Almeda fire is our more local OR example.

    The article also misses the point that the neighborhoods destroyed by the Camp (and Almeda) fire were suburban, not rural. Rural settings offer the possibility of well spaced, fire hardened homes with well maintained landscaping and at least moderate slopes. But that takes $ and/or sweat (likely both) whereas the traditional rural population is in large part neither wealthy nor young. Retreat for that demographic may also be the only practical solution.

    • Good points, Phil. I recall reading that ~50% of the “hardened” homes in Paradise burned in the Camp Fire.

      • That’s it.

        “Homes built prior to 1997 fared poorly, with only 11.5% surviving, compared with 38.5% survival for homes built in 1997 and after. The difference in survival percentage for homes built immediately before and after the adoption of Chapter 7A in the California Building Code (37% and 44%, respectively) was not statistically significant. Distance to nearest destroyed structure, number of structures destroyed within 100 m, and pre-fire overstory canopy cover within 100 m of the home were the strongest predictors of survival, but significant interactions with the construction time period suggested that factors contributing to survival differed for homes of different ages. Homes >18 m from a destroyed structure and in areas with pre-fire overstory canopy cover within 30–100 m of the home of <53% survived at a substantially higher rate than homes in closer proximity to a destroyed structure or in areas with higher pre-fire overstory canopy cover. Most fire damage to surviving homes appeared to result from radiant heat from nearby burning structures or flame impingement from the ignition of near-home combustible materials."

    • Hi Phil: Yes, the Almeda Fire was urban — and also set by an arsonist — in which the main fuels were older, tightly spaced trailer houses and mobile homes, fueled by Himalayan blackberries that had grown out of control on the adjacent Bear Creek “Greenway”: http://nwmapsco.com/ZybachB/Articles/Magazines/Oregon_Fish_&_Wildlife_Journal/20210320_Wildfire_Reforestation/Zybach_20210320.pdf

      However, the rural communities of Blue River, Rainbow, and Finn Rock also suffered major losses of homes during the same days, during the Holiday Farm wildfire, including a number that were widely spaced and likely “hardened” by the owners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB-YALcGqcs

  2. I’m a little surprised that “the market” hasn’t been more effective and providing incentives to not build in these places. If the cost of insurance, more stringent building codes and property taxes properly reflected the higher risks, and if full disclosure of fire risk were required for property sales, there should be less investment in high risk areas. “Retreat” from existing investments is harder and some will be disproportionately affected, which may warrant subsidies.

    The Forest Service has a role in these incentives by the way, both by providing information about inherent fire risk and by what its forest plan says about how it will manage public lands at locations along the private land interface.

      • Hi, in the same report the large table 1 for fires 1980-2020 has many foot notes that indicate many years of California wildfire losses not being reported in that table and also a reference to “large-loss fires”. So maybe the above table also excludes those wildfire loss years also. Might need a bit more digging?

        [1] Includes $1.5 billion in damage caused by the Oakland firestorm, most of which entailed damage to homes but for which no detailed breakdown by property type was available.
        [2] Includes $809 million in damage caused by Southern California wildfires.
        [3] Does not include the Southern California wildfires that caused estimated property damage of $2 billion.
        [4] Does not include the California firestorm in 2007 that caused estimated property damage of $1.8 billion.
        [5] Does not include the California wildfires in 2008 that caused estimated property damage of $1.4 billion.
        [6] Does not include two California wildfires: the Valley Fire with a loss of $1.5 billion and the Butte Fire with a loss of $450 million.
        [7] Includes the Gatlinburg, Tennessee wildfires in 2016 that caused estimated property damage of $911 million.
        [8] Does not include the Northern California wildfires in 2017 that caused estimated property damage of $10 billion.
        [9] Includes over $12 billion in losses from California wildfires in 2018.
        [10] Does not include $4.2 billion in losses from California wildfires in 2020.

        See NFPA’s reports on large-loss fires in the United States and catastrophic multiple-death fires for details on the deadliest and costliest fires each year.

        Note: Direct property damage figures do not include indirect losses, like business interruption. Inflation adjustment to 2020 dollars was done using the Consumer Price Index Purchasing Power of the Dollar. Very large fires, such as the 2017, 2018, and 2020 California wildfires, destroyed many different properties. Source: Fire Loss in the United States During 2020 by Marty Ahrens and Ben Evarts, NFPA, 2021, and previous reports in the series.

        • Yes, Carl, I saw those footnotes, too. However, do the arithmetic. The magnitude of these unaccounted-for wildfire losses is still very small compared to non-wildfire losses.

          • Ok, maybe I need a math lesson:
            So for 2015-2019 the largest avg loss category was $1.1 B (Electrical Dist….)

            From just the footnotes for 2016, 2017, 2018 wildfires excluded events I get $22.9 B

            So averaged across 5 years $4.58 B which would make those wildfire events the biggest category for that time frame.

            It looks like ~$8 B losses from table 1 on the average for 1980-2020 excluding major wildfire events.

            Sorry, I think I’m missing your point.

            • No, Carl, your math is fine; I need a geography lesson. Except for California, my broad brush statement that home losses to wildland fire are relatively modest would be accurate. It turns out, however, that California’s losses from wildfire are big enough during big fire years to be nationally significant, i.e., as much as 50% of total nationwide losses.

              Which reminds me that California is the one state where the insurance industry is saying “no mas” and refusing to underwrite home coverage in some places. However, the legislature has intervened to compel high-risk coverage.

              I appreciate your corrections.


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