For years, state officials have promised and failed to update maps that show the parts of California most at risk for wildfire. In the more than a dozen years since current maps were released, climate change and climate science have dramatically adjusted our understanding of what might burn.
Now, state officials say the long-awaited updates will land in the next few months.
The stakes for the new fire risk maps are high. Local governments use CalFire’s hazard zones as a guide post in deciding where new homes and businesses should be approved — or rejected.
Homeowners who live inside high risk zones have to disclose that risk when they decide to sell. They also are required by a new state law to keep their homes fire-proofed — by building out defensible space.
The number of homes in those high-risk areas has grown in the last decade. The state’s wildfires now regularly set records in size and destruction. “Fires are burning in ways that nobody has seen before,” said CalFire Chief Thom Porter at an August news conference. “Yes, I keep saying that. You keep hearing that. But it is absolutely true.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection last updated its fire hazard severity zone maps in 2007, well before recent record-breaking megafires swept across California. Past mapping focused on geographic hazards such as forests and canyons where fire spreads, according to Daniel Berlant, CalFire’s assistant deputy director. This time, climate hazards are front and center.
“What has changed,” Berlant added, “is these extreme wind events, which carry embers now well past that outer edge [where development intersects with wildlands] into areas that historically were not even designated with a fire hazard level.”
On the maps, which cover all 58 counties, are three color-coded designations: yellow for moderate fire hazard, orange for high hazard and red for very high. This time, CalFire says those zones are likely to be bigger, taking in more Californians and more areas where homes and wildlands meet.
In Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs Fire caused widespread urban damage, homeowner Brian Fies is waiting anxiously for CalFire’s new maps. Fies’ home burned to the ground in 2017, and he wrote a memoir about his loss called A Fire Story. Eventually, he rebuilt on the same land.
“Climate change is making risk a moving target,” Fies said. “Places that used to be safe aren't safe anymore, and firefighters need to understand and reflect that change.”
New maps will have big impact
Local governments use CalFire’s hazard zones to help decide where new homes and businesses should be approved. Inside these zones, developers must follow the state’s strict and more costly fire safety rules, known as the 7A codes.
Those codes require:
- Wider roads, more access to water supplies, and more road and directional signs;
- More costly materials for new home construction, including walls, roofs and eaves that can resist flying embers and heat from fire;
- Clearing 100 feet of defensible space around buildings; and
- Disclosure that a piece of property is within a fire zone when it’s sold.
Local governments have argued that expanding the hazard zones will make it harder to meet state targets for new affordable housing, said Staci Heaton, a regulatory affairs advocate with the Rural County Representatives of California.
“The state’s telling [counties] they have to build so many housing units per year,” she said. “Even in the high fire hazard severity zones, they have to strike that balance between fire mitigation and also building these low-income housing units.”
For homeowners within hazard zones, Heaton argued life is likely to be more difficult. Homes in risky areas are more likely to lose their electricity when the wind picks up, she says, because utility companies may target their neighborhoods for planned power shut offs.
And Heaton expects some property owners could find their homes uninsurable.
“Once those fire maps get finalized, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more non-renewals,” she said. “We’re already seeing a lot of homeowner insurance non-renewals in our communities.”
‘We want to get the science right’
CalFire officials maintain that they’re focused on precision, not politics, in drawing the new hazard zones, which were anticipated in 2020.
“We want to get the science right,” Berlant said. “Unfortunately, building that science into a model has taken us a lot longer than we had originally projected.”
The update will incorporate extreme weather models that didn’t exist when the current maps were developed nearly two decades ago.
But critics like Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit environmental group, say CalFire has long had the capacity to make the maps more accurate and relevant.
“To have [the old maps] still hanging around is pretty inexcusable,” he said.
Halsey added that the existing maps are both outdated and flawed.
In Santa Rosa, the Tubbs Fire burned the Fountaingrove neighborhood, just as the Hanly Fire had in 1964, and a blaze before that in 1908.
“This is what’s so tragic: That area burned twice before, virtually in the same footprint in the previous 100 years,” Halsey said. “And so why that history wasn't incorporated into the fire severity maps is a mystery to me.”
Approximately 95% of structures seriously damaged in California wildfires from 2013 through 2020 took place inside either federal, state or local fire hazard zones, according to data provided by CalFire. Dave Sapsis, CalFire’s wildland fire scientist in charge of the maps, points out that the state’s hazard maps proved highly accurate in predicting where structures would burn during California’s recent wildfires.
But he also acknowledged that the map for Santa Rosa should have incorporated historical burn risk better. “Our existing model right now works almost all the time except when it doesn’t,” Sapsis said. “And that was a fairly sizable miss.”
Complicating things for the public, CalFire’s maps only show state fire hazard zones and some local hazard zones, but not those designated by the federal government.
Because of climate change, CalFire’s Sapsis expects to update hazard maps more often in the future.
“That hazard is increasing with time,” Sapsis explained. “The fire environment is getting worse. It's getting drier, it's getting windier.”
Berlant, CalFire’s assistant deputy director, said the agency would unveil the new maps to county governments “as early as the beginning of next year.”
In Santa Rosa, homeowner Brian Fies says state and local governments should put the map in every mailbox.
“In my opinion they should push it,” Fies said. “Not just passively provided, not just it's available on, you know, Page 312 of the county's website, but they should push it.”
Fies’ neighborhood wasn’t in a high risk zone on the CalFire map when he rebuilt. But he’s worried about what the updated maps may reveal.“It seems like nowhere in the western half of North America is there a safe place anymore,” Fies added. “It's difficult, even in the suburbs.”