Friday, November 16, 2018

Anything less won't make enough of a difference

On multiple occasions over the last week, the President has tweeted about forest management as a means of preventing the wildfires that plague California, among other places.  In one case, he said "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests."

California Governor Jerry Brown is quoted as responding that "forest management is only one element of preventing forest fires. Managing all the forests in every way we can does not stop climate change and those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we are now witnessing and will continue to witness."

Both make good points.  Scientists and observers all agree that the climate has been warmer and drier in California, rendering the state susceptible to fires that seem more easy to ignite, are more widespread, and more difficult to put out.  They also agree that forest management is an issue.  The same article (and photo source) concludes with:

It's relentless, says Malcolm North, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service."In much of California we're getting to a pretty much year-round fire season as in the past it used to be limited to five or six months out of the year," says North.

Dry weather and strong winds also mean that what would have been small fires in the past are now monster fires that both damage trees and climb up into the canopy and kill whole forests, says North. This is due in part to the fact that forest managers have spent the last century putting out every fire they could, even small, natural fires, he says, and the forests have became choked with too much overgrowth, making them ready to burn.

Additionally, North says hurdles such as steep slopes, protected wildlife and complaints from homeowners about smoke limit how much federal and state mangers can thin or do controlled burns in forests.  "Literally probably 80 to 90 percent of these dry, mid-elevation forests are chock-full of fuels that really drives high intensity fire," he says.

Reports today note that more than 600 persons are still missing in due to the fires in California.  This is a staggering figure, though it's hoped that the list includes many evacuees who don't even know they're reported as missing.

Whether climate change, carelessness, or poor forest management, or the likely combination of these and other contributors to the problem, the President points out the obvious. The only things on the list we can truly control are development and forest management.  For a variety of reasons, including political and public outcry, forests aren't managed in a way that preserves the balance inherent in nature. For many of the same reasons, counties and municipalities are equally unable to restrict (or physically guide) development in and around forested areas.  The demand for space and the voices of land owners too often drown out the calm voices of common sense.

In a Forbes article earlier this year, former California Assembly member Chuck DeVore outlines the political and literal ties between climate change, the decline of the timber industry, and forest management policy.  He concludes that, "whether global climate change is a problem that can be solved by California is a dubious proposition—one year’s worth of emission growth in China is greater than California’s total emissions. But the action needed to reduce the state’s growing forest fire threat would be the same regardless of one’s belief in any problems posed by climate change: start managing our forests again."

The Voice of Reason?

But one of the most obvious and, frankly, common-sense statements I've heard from anyone regarding the actions that can reasonably be taken to reduce the loss of life and destruction of property from wildfires in California is from this Bloomberg piece of two days ago. Simply:

"Stop building homes in places that are likely to burn -- and make homes that already exist in those areas a whole lot tougher... Anything less won't make enough of a difference."

The article continues:

That approach, wildfire and climate policy experts are quick to add, would be expensive and unpopular, especially in a state with both a housing shortage and stunning wooded landscapes that people want to live in. But as climate change causes more frequent and shocking blazes, they say anything less won’t make enough of a difference.

“It’s a land-use issue,” said Alice Hill, a senior adviser for climate resilience to President Barack Obama. Without so many homes being constructed in vulnerable areas at the edge of the forest, “we would still have the fires. But we wouldn’t have this kind of devastation.”

A paradox of California’s wildfire epidemic is that it already has one of the most aggressive building codes in the nation. The state uses the most up-to-date version of model national codes, and doesn’t allow local governments to opt out of those codes. It also requires that homes in areas with the highest risk of wildfire get built with fire-resistant materials and construction techniques....

In interviews, wildfire policy experts pointed to a range of specific reforms that could help reduce the danger facing people and homes in California. Each of those reforms shared one trait: They cost money.

One problem, according to Molly Mowery, founder and chief executive officer of Wildfire Planning International, is that state and local officials tend to define high-risk areas too narrowly. As a result, California’s aggressive wildfire codes don’t apply in neighborhoods that may appear safer on paper, but are increasingly affected as fires grow in size.

“More and more places around the country are getting affected in areas that were never labeled extreme,” Mowery said. “We need to stop thinking in terms of limited areas.”

Fire-resistant materials and building techniques can increase the cost of construction. But those costs don’t have to be exorbitant, according to Stuart Tom, president of the municipal engineering and consulting firm JAS Pacific Inc. and a member of the International Code Council’s board of directors. He said some jurisdictions are considering mandating that older homes use materials that meet the latest requirements when they’re renovated.

“How do you get what are really really good standards to be integrated into communities of older, at-risk construction, in a fair and cost-effective manner?” Tom said. “If you are going to re-roof your building, well then perhaps the entire roof should be compliant” with the wildfire code.

Another option, and one that could produce even more pushback from residents, is to apply the latest building codes retroactively to all homes in vulnerable areas, whether they’re renovating or not.

The article says that there’s a precedent for retroactive enforcement in the application of the seismic code for Los Angeles in 2015, when those more stringent codes required the most vulnerable properties to be rehabilitated to meet the new code. 

It's location, location and location--or is it money?

The article state the obvious on the minds of anyone outside watching this drama unfold.  "A more draconian measure would be to make it harder for developers to build subdivisions in risky areas in the first place."  Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association, said the growing severity of the wildfire problem and its aftermath are "making a lot of (residents) question,

'Why the heck did you all build there? This is just a bad land-use decision. Now you’re reaping the trouble.'"  

Then she added that "stopping people from building where they want to build can run counter to American values.  Our country’s big value is owning your own land, owning your property.  Anything that appears to threaten that is really not met with happiness and open arms.”

 It’s not just cultural values that prevent tighter land-use restrictions, but economic value as well... In Malibu, a hillside home will have a beautiful view of the ocean.  Those property lots are highly valuable. There’s lots of pressure on local officials to permit development. That increases your tax base, that contributes to the city’s coffers.

If California won’t stop building at the edge of the wilderness, it should at least apply the same strict standards of firefighting that cities adopted decades ago, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana that advises governments on wildfire risks. That means significant new spending on water infrastructure and municipal employees, as well as a willingness to enforce tougher rules.

“You would have fire hydrants. You would have full-time firefighters in your neighborhood. You would require sprinklers," Rasker said. “And you’d have a fire department inspect your building and your property once a year, with strict penalties if you don’t comply.”

The reason that many towns at the edge of the forest don’t apply those standards is cost, he said. But as climate change gets worse, that calculus becomes more shortsighted.

“Human lives are invaluable,” Rasker said. “Yeah, cost matters. But the cost of not doing the right thing is tragedy.

"People don't laugh at me anymore"

A quick note about an interesting, if unusual building technology that takes the notion of a floating building in a different direction, providing both locational consistency, as well as flood mitigation:  The Amphibious House.

According to one source, here, "amphibious houses are built to be situated in a water body and are designed to adapt to rising and falling water levels. Floating houses are permanently in the water, while amphibious houses are situated above the water and are designed to float when the water levels rise."  The piece continues:

Amphibious homes are usually fastened to flexible mooring posts and rest on concrete foundations. If the water level rises, they can move upwards and float. The fastenings to the mooring posts limit the motion caused by the water. These type of houses are popular in highly populated areas where there is a high demand for houses near or in water. Because floating or amphibious houses adapt to rising water levels, they are very effective in dealing with floods. 

Living on water can also reduce the negative effects of heat, and may improve the quality of life of residents, who like to live on or near water. Floating houses have already been built in various countries, like The Netherlands and the UK, and amphibious houses in The Netherlands. The scale can vary from individual houses to major groupings of dwellings to, theoretically, full-blown floating cities. So far, this option has been most experimented with in inland surface waters, but marine applications are possible.

Examples of amphibious houses are noted here and here in this example from London (also the source of the photos).  There's even an amphibious house that looks completely "normal," like a common masonry home. But it, like it's "lighter" counterparts, floats as needed.

Elizabeth English, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, is quoted in this New Yorker article saying that:

Unlike traditional buildings, amphibious structures are not static; they respond to floods like ships to a rising tide, floating on the water’s surface. As one of English’s colleagues put it, “You can think of these buildings as little animals that have their feet wet and can then lift themselves up as needed.” Amphibiation may be an unconventional strategy, but it reflects a growing consensus that, at a time of climatic volatility, people can’t simply fight against water; they have to learn to live with it. “With amphibious construction, water becomes your friend,” English told me. “The water gets to do what the water wants to do. It’s not a confrontation with Mother Nature—it’s an acceptance of Mother Nature.”

Professor English has spent years swimming upstream (pun intended) against a tide of naysayers and critics.  But given the ravages of climate change and the proven ability of these amphibious houses to help mitigate damage to property from floods, attitudes are changing.  “People don’t laugh at me anymore,” she is quoted as saying.

For more information on amphibious houses, see Dr. English's Buoyant Foundation Project web page.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Today is GIS (Geographical Information Systems) Day.  According to the "official" source, "GIS Day provides an international forum for users of geographic information systems (GIS) technology to demonstrate real-world applications that are making a difference in our society."  Which makes this the perfect day to highlight the use of GIS technology as a tool in hazard mitigation and planning. 

Ryan Lanclos of ESRI writes that, "while technology can’t prevent natural disasters, it builds powerful preparedness and response tools; in particular, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), commonly referred to as “mapping,” creates critical tools that provide a vital function for preparedness. Any community can increase their preparedness by following a few simple steps before a disaster comes calling."  His steps are as follows and worth noting.  Ryan is the public safety team leader at ESRI, so you can't really find a more knowledgeable authority on the use of GIS in hazard mitigation.  Here are his comments (I'll refer you to his online article, here, for more detail):

First, it is important to know your risks. Communities need to know, and make sure their citizens know, which areas are at risk for disasters. By mapping and analyzing your hazards in the community, you can begin to prioritize where to begin preparations before the disaster strikes. This means taking action at both the government and citizen levels....

Second, communities need to make their evacuation routes and zones easily available to the public. With this information, people living in at-risk areas can develop a personal evacuation plan well in advance of the disaster. When an evacuation order is issued, people will know when to get out based on their location, and they will be familiar with their directed route out of harm’s way....

Third, communities need to prepare their data just like they prepare other critical systems, data that is critical to understanding impact and supporting collaboration during a disaster. Esri, for example, has a Disaster Response Program that provides free disaster support for any organization affected by a disaster or crisis. This can help prepare a few common data feeds that are immediately needed in the event of a disaster, such as: traffic data (road closures and congestion); weather and storm tracks; precipitation forecast and accumulation amounts; and flood gauges....

Fourth, it is important to know where your assets and resources are. This means mapping not only your resource locations as they are deployed for response and recovery, but also mapping shelter locations, medicine caches, food banks, etc. Know the location of these assets and release information on points of distribution for drinking water, food and other resources to the public when possible. This information is critical, and for vulnerable populations, which rely on certain medications or medical treatments in their daily life, helping them to know where necessary resources are located could be the difference between life and death....

The old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure;” when it comes to preparedness, an ounce of preparation allows response teams to recapture a pound of time when every second counts. Understanding the “where” factor is key to preparedness.

For a great resource on using GIS technology for hazard mitigation, see this publication by FEMA.

Photo source:

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Autumn Inferno in California

This Instagram image (below) from a horse rescue in California tells the dramatic story of a state once again in flames.   A CNN post updated earlier today describes hurricane-like wind gusts that have driven walls of flame over dried hillsides and killed over 40 people so far. 

The statistics are mind-numbing: Over 21 million people are affected by the fires. Almost 250,000 acres are already burned, and fires have so far destroyed 7,000 homes and buildings.

CNN reports that the Woolsey Fire in the south has "charred more than 93,000 acres and destroyed 435 structures. But on Tuesday, hurricane-force gusts -- meaning 74 mph or greater -- will hit canyons and ridgetops, fueling an already catastrophic blaze."

Single-digit humidity along with very dry vegetation will lead to the potential of explosive fire growth.  So far, two people have died from the Woolsey Fire -- both in Malibu.  But the tragedy is even worse in Northern California, where the so-called Camp Fire has left 42 people dead. It's now the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state's recorded history. 
Actor Gerard Butler tweeted a photo of himself at the charred remains of his home in Malibu, along with a plea for his fans to help support those fighting the fires.

California Burning

Officials suspect utility lines may be to blame, and they are investigating reported transmission problems in areas where the fires began. That would explain the ignition, but why is this a perennial problem and why is there always so much loss of life and property in these events?

Three prior posts HERE and HERE and HERE address that topic.  Sadly, the solutions are difficult to develop and, more importantly, difficult to implement.  But if this week's loss of life is any impetus for action, something should be done.  Quickly.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

I Missed It! (Or Did I?)

October was, according to the American Planning Association (APA), National Community Planning Month.  The initiative is intended to help put focus on the importance of community planning and the potentially positive impacts good planning can achieve. 

FEMA took that notion of #PlanningMonth one step further and suggested it would also be a good time to highlight the role planners have in helping reduce "the impact of disaster through the way land use, zoning, easements, and building codes can be harnessed to reduce a community's risk to natural hazards in long-lasting ways. After all, the safest community is the one that encourages development away from hazard-prone areas, and actively plans for its potential risks."

FEMA's own Planning Month page proclaims "It’s About Where and How We Build"  It notes the importance of educating young homeowners and renters in finding their new homes in safer areas. The page continues:

Making the decision to invest your life and your money in a new home is a monumental decision – a decision that should encompass all of the facts, including how your home could be affected by floods, windstorms, or earthquakes. You as the homeowner need to be equipped with this information to make the best decision possible for you and your family. These are risks we all face and do our best to protect ourselves against. The actions we take ahead of a disaster can protect our homes and loved ones. Your state government has worked to identify what hazards affect your community, and what steps can be taken to reduce the effects of disasters.

As an example, they cite the work the state of Colorado undertook following the severe flooding along the Front Range in 2013.  An e-mail announcing FEMA's #PlanningMonth programs included a link to the document Planning for Hazards: Land Use Solutions for Colorado, by the state's Department of Local Affairs' Community Development Office.

Good News!

The good news is that any month is a good month to begin planning safer communities.  And even better news is that today, November 8th, has been designated by the APA as World Town Planning Day!  The designation began in 1949 by the late professor Carlos Maria della Paolera of the University of Buenos Aires.  The APA says "World Town Planning Day is celebrated in 30 countries on four continents each November. It is a special day to recognize and promote the role of planning in creating livable communities." 

Of note to me here is that the APA also notes the purpose of World Town Planning Day is to:
  • To draw attention to the aims, objectives, and progress of urban and regional planning around the globe.
  • To engage local citizens and officials in the value of planning and to participate in shaping their community.
  • To highlight the valuable contributions sound planning has made to the quality of global human settlements and their environment.
  • To give worldwide coverage to the ideals of urban and regional planning not only within the profession but also among the general public.
FEMA hasn't embraced World Town Planning Day in a formal way, but given the International nature of the posts in this blog, I'll do so here. Inherent in the bullets above is the notion that effective community planning, as practiced in any nation, should include consideration of the elements described in the Colorado guide (above).  Specifically:

There are numerous opportunities to effectively integrate and address the mitigation of known hazards in local plans and policies. The comprehensive plan is a community’s most important and potentially effective tool for consolidating and articulating various policies that relate to planning, land use, and development. Hazard-related issues arise in a range of planning contexts, and there are different approaches for integrating hazards into comprehensive plans, discussed below. Beyond the comprehensive plan, the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan is an obvious and important place to address local hazard policy.

In addition, communities should utilize other supporting plans, policies, and programs to demonstrate clear linkages and potential synergies between hazard risk reduction and other important community goals. Each supporting plan typically should include a background study or assessment of existing and future conditions, as well as goals, strategies, and policies that can contribute to the implementation of multi-objective solutions. 

Planners should ask:

  • Does the future land-use map clearly identify natural hazard areas?
  • Are transportation policies used to guide growth to safe locations?
  • Do environmental policies provide incentives to development that is located outside of protective ecosystems?
  • Are the goals and policies of the comprehensive plan related to those of the FEMA Local Hazard Mitigation Plan?
  • Does the zoning ordinance conform to the comprehensive plan in terms of discouraging development or redevelopment within natural hazard areas?
  • Do subdivision regulations allow density transfers where hazard areas exist?
  • Does the capital improvement plan/program provide funding for hazard mitigation projects identified in the FEMA Mitigation Plan?

Finally, related to an earlier post on the integration of various plan components, policies and institutions,  the Colorado document outlines ways this can be done to maximize the mitigation aspects of the plan.

In Need of a Hero? Here's Super Levee!

The next installment of the PBS television feature I noted in my last post, here, discussed a number of technologies being incorporated to protect Tokyo and other coastal areas of Japan from water inundation. One intriguing idea being used along the rivers of Tokyo are so-called "Super Levees."  As described in a 2013 publication:

"The plan dictates that the current 10-meter-high embankments will remain, but their slope will change dramatically. The ground is to be raised by up to 15 meters to meet the current levee height before gently sloping downward. This way flood waters will flow gradually onto and away from the levee without breaking it. The super-levee will be an enormous piece of infrastructure fully integrated into a rebuilt community."

An engineer featured in the documentary explained that residents of neighborhoods along the rivers are evacuated (his term) and that their homes are razed, the land built-up behind the super-levee, and then the communities are rebuilt and re-occupied.  It's mitigation on a mind-bending scale, but apparently worth the investment, given the importance of Tokyo as a vibrant center of economic activity for the country and the World as a whole.

Another article on the subject (and the source of the photo above) states that "levee failure is inherent to levee construction:

"Levees constantly, gradually fail: their bulk is subject to decomposition and settling; their tops are eroded and their foundations are undermined and underseeped; their bases subside from lack of sediment, the contained rivers rise against them from too much of it. It would seem that to build a levee is to plant the seeds for its own destruction.

"And yet levees and flood-protection works are inescapable. Many cities, including New Orleans, Amsterdam, and Venice would not exist without them. And as sea-levels rise, cities with infrastructure and populations concentrated at the water's edge will inevitably turn to walls and barriers to keep out the water.

"Although the world most often turns to experts from the Netherlands when planning for this wet future, Japan has been quietly building a robust flood-protection system that might provide equally sophisticated lessons. Most interestingly, Japanese engineers have been experimenting with a fail-proof, low-maintenance levee for the protection of urban areas in flood-prone cities like Tokyo and Osaka."

The article goes on to describe much of what is also covered in the PBS documentary, that these super-levees are large-scale earthworks that are best constructed where land is available or, as noted above, where residents and other occupying functions can be temporarily relocated.  Of particular interest to this blog is the following statement that underscores the final point(s) made in the PBS piece, that, like everything else in Japanese society it seems, Japan has learned to live with their environment, rather than trying to control it.

Japan has learned to live with their environment, rather than trying to control it.

The article concludes:  The lesson from Japan is to consider flood-protection not as the isolated endeavor of a single agency, but as part of a larger body of work that is intertwined with urban re-development, open-space planning, land rehabilitation, and habitat generation. Most importantly, the Japanese model proves that protecting our cities from floods does not mean shutting them off from the water. With many of the levees around the country protecting our crops rather than our lives, sophisticated levee solutions will also have a rural application. Although no one in the U.S. has yet embraced Japan's example, the inadequacy of our current flood protection models is being increasingly exposed.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Quick Media Recommendation

PBS has launched an excellent series of TV documentaries related to adaptive actions of major World cities. 

Each episode is packed with lessons learned, information about the technologies being applied, and the challenges faced by those who are racing against time to prepare for the next big disaster. 

PBS says: "Weeks after Hurricane Florence ravaged the Carolinas, and on the sixth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy in New York, the four-part series examines how cities are preparing for the real-time effects of climate change." 

I've only seen the first (New York) episode, but will definitely watch the others.  Worth your time.  For more info, see: