Fire risk amid a housing crisis — California’s challenging new reality

Fire: The River Fire destroyed nearly 3,000 acres and threatened 1,500 structures in Salinas, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2020 after an early morning lightning storm. | Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

California has a lot of moratoriums it needs to worry about.

Even as Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers rush to extend California’s eviction moratorium before it expires next week, another big deadline looms on the horizon. In November, the state’s moratorium on insurance companies dropping coverage for Californians living in wildfire-prone areas is set to end — meaning at least 2.1 million residents could soon find themselves without homeowners’ insurance.

That doesn’t bode well for a state whose fire season is starting earlier and lasting longer. On Monday, more than 450 firefighters were attacking the Willow Fire in Monterey County. The blaze, which started Thursday, has forced hundreds of residents to evacuate and continues to threaten historic sites, including one of the country’s oldest Japanese Buddhist Soto Zen monasteries.

Wildfires are also expanding geographically, engulfing regions long thought to be immune from blazes. Yet developers are increasingly looking to build homes in areas deemed “fire hazard severity zones” as house prices skyrocket and housing demand far outstrips supply, the Sacramento Bee reports. Lawmakers have tried to curb the practice without much success, though former Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined lawsuits to stop two developments in Lake and San Diego counties, citing fire risk.

Lake County Supervisor Moke Simon: “Developing more housing supply is an area of profound concern, and we also need thriving businesses to employ local residents and strengthen our economy. Neither of these will happen if we adopt a perspective that wildfire-prone areas of the state should cease all development.”

Developers say they’re taking extensive measures to protect homes, including building fire-resilient roofs, tempered windows and sprinkler systems. Newsom has proposed allocating millions of dollars to harden homes against fires, though he wants to funnel much more money into fire breaks — a strategy that had limited success last year, a San Francisco Chronicle investigation found.

And despite the danger of losing their home — not to mention their insurance — many Californians living in wildfire zones have no intention of leaving.

Lynn Grace, who lost her Napa County home in last year’s Glass Fire: “My family’s been here since the 1850s. … This is our new reality and we’re going to make it work.”


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