Report: Sprawl, wildfire risk on collision course in Sierra
That large-lot home surrounded by towering pines, so desired by many home-buying emigrants to the Sierra Nevada, has a costly and increasingly dangerous downside ” the risk of being torched by a mountain wildfire, according to a new report by the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
Sprawling development that displaces wildlife habitat and increases infrastructure costs has long been anathema to Sierra conservationists.
Now, with the release of “Dangerous Development: Wildfire and Rural Sprawl in the Sierra Nevada,” environmentalists can cite sprawl’s susceptibility to wildfire as a reason to fight the popular development style.
In a report released this week by the South Lake Tahoe-based Sierra Nevada Alliance, a two-year investigation concluded that the Sierra’s warming summer temperatures and housing development that keeps pushing into the Sierra’s thick forests could conspire to put thousands of residents in the path of a future, potentially deadly firestorm.
And the danger is costing taxpayers an estimated $1 billion a year to protect private homes from fire, according to the report.
The problem is increasing, the report’s authors say. The number of people living in extreme or very high fire-danger areas in the Sierra grew by 16 percent between 1990 and 2000. And 94 percent of land slated for rural residential development in the Sierra is classified by the state as very high or extreme fire-danger areas.
“Every day we are building new houses in extremely dangerous parts of California and the Sierra,” said Land Use Coordinator Autumn Bernstein of the Sierra Nevada Alliance and the author of the report, in a written statement.
“This should be a wake-up call that destructive wildfires like the recent Angora Fire in Lake Tahoe will become more common, unless we all start working together to plan ‘fire-smart’ communities.”
The report’s conclusions come as no surprise to North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw, who oversees firefighting efforts from Kings Beach to Tahoe’s West Shore. Whitelaw’s district is looking for approval from local residents to add property tax money into the district, precisely because of the cost and effort needed to protect thousands of homes that jut into the basin forest across North Tahoe.
“We used to be more of a structural firefighting district,” said Whitelaw. “Now, we are also a wildland firefighting district.”
Whitelaw also agrees with another conclusion of the report, that far-flung rural subdivisions are often much harder to defend from fire because of smaller roads, absent fire hydrants and low water flows.
“It’s not uncommon for these older water systems to be overwhelmed by firefighting demands,” said Whitelaw.
The report advocated “fire-smart” development. The alliance urges Sierra towns to develop areas in the interior of their communities, a development pattern that will not add valuable property to outlying areas where homes are exposed to fire-prone forests.
If towns must grow larger, the report recommends organized concentric growth, not development that opens up entirely new wildland areas to development.
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