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Failure of housing policies of LA & SF contributing to wildfire conflagrations
Dennis Wyatt RGB
Dennis Wyatt

One of the most bizarre fluff stories in recent months generated to fill pseudo news holes on Internet media sites was on desirable locations in the United States based on growth.

High on the list was Chico. I’ll agree it is a desirable place to live.

The writer — apparently based on the East Coast given the firm publishing the website is located in New York City — obviously did some research. They credited the likely appeal to it being a small college town that boasts one of the nation’s largest urban parks in the form of the 2,500-acre Bidwell Park.

The site mentioned how Chico had grown 20.7 percent by adding 4,000 residents because of its appeal during 2019.

Anyone with a decent knowledge of California and knows the layout of the north state can tell you Chico’s college town atmosphere and a truly stunning urban park has nothing to do with its 20.7 percent population increase. It has everything to do with the fact more than 15,000 homes in and around Paradise burned during the Camp Fire in November 2018. Paradise is just a 15-mile drive east of Chico via Skyline Boulevard.

The population jump was almost exclusively the result of people scrambling to find a place to live after being burned out of their homes.

Failing to find — or recognize — all of the dots let alone connect them may hardly be a sin for a writer who likely has never stepped foot in the Golden State, probably has no clue that California is the biggest farm state by far, and perhaps thinks all Californians are within a stone’s throw of a beach, surf every other day, and attend parties in the Hollywood Hills.

But not connecting all the dots should be an unforgettable sin committed by state leaders that voters should remember at the ballot box.

More than 23,000 homes have been destroyed in California wildfires since 2016. Those displaced families help keep upward pressure on rents as burned out homes in wildfires often take years to rebuild. That adds to the housing shortage and erodes affordability.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development contends the state needs to build 180,000 new housing units a year but developers can only build 80,000 for a myriad of reasons — right or wrong — that can be tied to state and local government decrees.

The Insurance Information Institute estimates there are more than 4.5 million homes in this country at high or extreme risk from wildfire. Two million of those homes are in California.

Now for the real kicker: What, according to private and public sector research, is the No. 1 reason why people move into the urban-wildland interface? It’s housing affordability.

The urban-wildland interface is a term coined to describe the transition zone between urbanized areas and essentially unoccupied areas.

In California that is where people build on rolling wind-swept hills similar the 396,624- acre Santa Clara Unit Lightning Complex Fire that is still burning southwest of Manteca. Although essentially devoid of homes, the terrain the SCU fire has burned through is a kissing cousin of the hills around the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area that has been developed in a bid to provide housing.

The urban-wildfire interface also refers to the areas along the Sierra from Paradise to Sonora and beyond where people have built.

The bottom line is obvious yet ignored on a wholesale basis. The failure of urban centers such as the Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay Area to provide adequate and affordable housing has forced people for generations into the suburbs and places like Manteca. In turn the commuters forced to flee the cities for affordable housing in order to find shelter drive up the price of homes here forcing many in valley cities and suburbs that do not have Bay Area paychecks that tend to be fatter to move toward the Sierra foothills.

The housing shortage and the ripple effect it has created by allowing urbanization in areas that aren’t developed to urbanized standards including fire hydrants and departments funded for five minute response times is not the only reason why wildfires have gotten worse.

But to be clear it is the reason they have become more destructive.

The lightning strike that caused the massive wildfire southwest of Manteca that quickly became the third largest ever in California since Cal Fire has tracked the size of such infernos was not considered a disaster. Had the area been developed with thousands upon thousands of homes it would have been.

It would have forced Cal Fire to assign more resources to search and rescue as well as protecting structures when they could as opposed to simply working to contain fire.

Drought, trees killed off by beetle infestations, climate change both natural and what man has induced, and overly aggressive fire suppression that has allowed combustible fuel to accumulate are contributing factors to wildfires being larger within the miniscule time frame of the last century.

That said, much of the more aggressive fire suppression of wildfires that leads to fuel accumulating is due to the growing need since the 1950s to protect property and people as more of us build homes in wildland areas.

The fact California land development patterns made worse by NIMBYism and Sacramento’s extremely weak effort to force the job generating urban centers of this state to allow the building of housing affordable for the workforce they need is by far a bigger factor in terms of the destruction of wildfires as compared to greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not being a climate change denier. It is simply pointing out our obsession with climate change as being the driving force with most of our ills conveniently allows our leaders to shirk being responsible for the greater good and the rest of us from facing the fact we can’t keep building in the manner that we are in California.

If the oceans never rose another inch and if man-made greenhouse gases never increased every time a hammer swings away on a new home in the urban-wildland interface we are pounding another nail in the proverbial coffin.

We need to stop looking at our problems as a state as if   worsening wildfire seasons have nothing to do with development patterns, and the need for affordable housing near jobs.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.