New book by UC Davis researchers documents CA wildfire strategies, hopes to aid future prevention

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion via KGO logo
Friday, October 14, 2022
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In their upcoming book, "Design by Fire" UC Davis researchers sifted through the recently smoldering landscapes for lessons moving forward.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For victims of California wildfires, the decision about whether to return and rebuild is often painful. But weighing the risk and rewards is already shaping policy up and down the state.

In their upcoming book "Design by Fire," UC Davis researchers Emily Schlickman and Brett Milligan sifted through the recently smoldering landscapes for lessons moving forward.

"What we've been interested in doing is trying to understand what are people doing around the world and fire-prone areas to better adapt to this compounding issue of wildfire? And so we've collected about 27 case studies at this point," professor Schlickman said.

They describe much of the past centuries as a pattern of fire resistance, as European settlers displaced native populations.

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"What's known as fire suppression is not allowing fires to burn in landscapes that have evolved to burn and typically do burn. There's a whole colonial legacy behind that," says Milligan.

Professor Milligan says some emerging strategies involve living better with fire instead. He points to a growing movement, often involving indigenous peoples, who are reintroducing ceremonial burns to control and manage the brush and fuel that can feed fast-moving wildfires. Earlier this year, ABC7 News along with our partners at National Geographic profiled examples, including the Yurok nation, and the local Amah Mutsun tribal band, which is helping to manage historic Redwood groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

"I think one of the most robust ways of looking at adaptation is through indigenous knowledge, whether that's in California or elsewhere. There are places where people have learned over hundreds even thousands of years to live intimately with landscapes and with fire and to make it work in certain ways," Milligan said.

But in some areas of California the wildfire threat has become so intense, there is a level of planning that goes further: making the case of designing more fire resistant communities, or in some instances, planning what's known as managed fire retreat. The authors point to San Diego as one example. Where planners are restricting development on steep hillsides, where flames can accelerate vertically, making them nearly indefensible for firefighters.

RELATED: Indigenous peoples use ceremonial burns as Redwood forest management tool in Santa Cruz mountains

"Their guidelines suggest instead of building mid slope, how about building on top of the slope and actually creating a buffer," Schlickman said.

They say cities like Los Angeles have updated their planning to control development in wildfire prone areas. While other communities like Paradise are experimenting with a payment program, to relocate residents from fire ravaged areas.

"For folks that are living on the edge of town, who lost their property, for instance, the Parks and Rec Department is going to them and saying, Hey, are you thinking of moving back? If you're not, could we pay you for your land, and you could find another place to live. What they're thinking of doing is creating a city wide buffer," Schlickman says.

Ultimately, they believe no one solution will fit every community. But in "Design by Fire," the authors document a growing urgency to change the way we live and plan for wildfires in the future.

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