CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

In 2008, Paradise was spared.

That June, a fire broke out in one of the canyons southwest of the Butte County town and quickly roared east, up and over the ridge. Thousands scrambled to evacuate, clogging the single road to safety. A sudden wind shift allowed firefighters to cordon off the flames, but the experience left residents intimately aware of the risks of living in Paradise.

State lawmakers have been aware of the risk, too. In color-coded fire-hazard maps maintained by Cal Fire, Paradise is a bright red island in a churning sea of pink, orange, and yellow—all denoting various levels of danger.

“It is not a great feeling … to have highlighted an area for its vulnerability, and then having this come to fruition,” said Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire researcher who helped designate the state agency’s “Fire Hazard Severity Zones.”

As California grapples with an increasing possibility that the once-in-a-century wildfires that have torched Paradise and Malibu are becoming once-a-year occurrences, larger swaths of the state’s population may find themselves living in the crimson regions of those maps. This presents lawmakers with a dilemma: Should they impose costly and politically unpalatable regulations on homeowners, and rip up existing infrastructure—or simply accept the risk?

“We’ve got to take intelligent precautions in how we design our cities,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a press conference with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. “The zoning and the planning has to take into account the threat of fires, (and) the building of appropriate shelters, so that people can always find a way to escape—and then of course, (there are) all the things we’re doing to mitigate climate change. All of it. It’s a big agenda. But what we’re paying this week is a very small fraction of what is needed over the years and decades.”

With wildfires growing ever more ferocious—a product of a changing climate, forests increasingly packed with dead and dry kindling, and the encroachment of development into state’s wilderness—it can be hard to tell which parts of California should be considered safe anymore. Coffey Park, the suburban subdivision of Santa Rosa that burned in last year’s firestorms, was designated a low-fire-risk area by Cal Fire.

The agency is now in the process of updating its hazard maps, with an expected draft publication date of next summer.

For state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes Santa Rosa, this year’s fires raise a number of “difficult yet necessary” questions about where and how communities are placed—and then replaced.

“What type of rules and regulations will there be if homes will be allowed to be rebuilt?” he said. “For example, defensible space, landscape restrictions, no longer allowing developments to be built with one way in and just one way out. … If there have been multiple fires over multiple years, are we truly going to rebuild?

“Being very candid with you, the discussion has just begun—but this is a discussion that we are going to have to have, because this is the new reality,” he said.

Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco has championed giving the state more power to override local planning decisions to meet statewide housing goals.

“Job one is to help the people whose lives have been so dramatically altered by this disaster, but we also need to look at the long-term picture of this new normal,” Wiener said. “Historically, we have allowed local communities almost complete autonomy in making housing-related decisions, whether that decision is not to allow new housing, whether that decision is to ban apartment buildings, or whether that decision is to allow a lot of housing in very fire-prone areas.”

Wiener says he is not suggesting that development be banned outright anywhere, but that the state should impose standards that “reflect our needs as a state and reflect risks.”

Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 45 percent of all new housing units built in California were constructed in what experts refer to as the wildland-urban interface—where the state’s cul-de-sac’d suburban subdivisions and rural communities meet its flammable forests and shrub fields. The encroachment of homes into undeveloped areas creates a much larger and challenging front for firefighters to defend.

“You get this very different fire dynamic once it gets into a heavily populated area,” said Anu Kramer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-authored the research upon which the estimate is based. “You have cars on fire, propane tanks exploding, and burning houses radiating a lot of heat, which can contribute to neighboring houses igniting. That’s very different from trees and shrubs burning in a forest.”


Strict rules for new homes, but not the old

California already has among the strictest fire-minded regulations on construction. Since 2008, any building constructed in areas designated at very high fire risk must be built with specific roofs, vents and other materials designed to resist fire and keep out flying embers. Homeowners are also required to maintain a perimeter of brush-free defensible space around their houses.

Legislation passed this year extends those restrictions, without exception, to development on local as well as state land. Cal Fire also operates a consulting arm for local governments hoping to make more fire-appropriate land-use decisions.

But some of those regulations were written with a certain type of community in mind, said Kramer: “Vacation homes in Tahoe with wood roofs and pine trees over the house. … A lot of the regulations are geared towards that quintessential idea.”

The charred homes of more urban enclaves such as Malibu and Santa Rosa were not destroyed by “a giant tsunami wave of flame,” said Chris Dicus, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo professor and president of the Association for Fire Ecology. Instead, they burn “from the inside out after embers get inside the house through vents and windows or under doors.” Those embers may have traveled from the front of the original fire miles away.

While many existing regulations require new construction be “hardened” to embers, they don’t apply to existing homes. That leaves many of California’s at-risk communities stuck with old, fire-prone homes, and inadequate or constrained infrastructure.

“We’re currently paying for the sins of the past, where subdivisions and other developments were built without fire in mind,” said Dicus.

Some changes are relatively easy to make even after construction: installing ember-resistant vents, weather-sealing garage doors, and clearing flammable items like lawn chairs off the property’s perimeter can keep embers from starting new spot fires. Other changes are pricier: regular brush clearing, double-paned windows to reduce radiant heat inside a home, replacing wood roofs with metal, and installing fire shutters.

You have a lot of homeowners who “maybe can’t afford to upgrade and retrofit” their homes, said Molly Mowery, president of Wildfire Planning International. “We know now what keeps us safer, but you can’t just change that overnight.”


Homeowner help: Subsidies, rebates and discounts?

One possible solution, said Sen. Wiener: the state could help current homeowners make those changes.

“What we don’t want to do is force people out of their homes because they can’t afford—for lack of a better phrase—a ‘wildfire retrofit,’” he said. He added that he would consider “subsidy and rebate programs … but I don’t want to pretend like I know what all the answers are.”

Absent new government assistance, insurers could encourage homeowners to be more fire-conscious. In the same way that health insurance providers might offer their policyholders discounted gym memberships, home insurers could cut a deal for those who install ember-resistant vents.

But only one major insurer in California currently offers discounts to encourage fire-safe behavior. According to a recent RAND Corporation report, that’s because most providers argue that state regulators don’t let them charge homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas a high enough premium to justify a discount. The state Insurance Department counters that such rate hikes wouldn’t be justified based on the evidence.

The study also found that most homeowners in high-risk areas are just purchasing less coverage and opting for plans with higher deductibles, leaving them more exposed.

And then there are changes that homeowners alone cannot make.

Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, spent last year promoting the region’s evacuation plan, so she knew what to do as soon as reports came in that fire was moving toward Paradise.

“I had turned on the town’s AM 1500 radio station, and they were notifying residents that an evacuation center had been set up and that certain zones needed to be evacuating,” she said. “So I felt kind of calm … like, ‘Oh, this is how the plan was supposed to go.’”

But that plan soon met a bottleneck on Skyway, the main route out of Paradise.

DeAnda said she got on the road at around 8:20 a.m.—along with hundreds of her neighbors. She wasn’t out of the foothills and away from the spot fires popping up along the side of the road for an hour and a half. It’s a drive that would typically take her 25 minutes.

Nearly a dozen of the bodies identified in the devastation left by the Camp Fire were found in their cars, stuck in the crush of evacuation traffic.

Paradise had an evacuation plan. But the plan, and the town’s cramped, 19th-century layout, were not prepared for a fire of such intensity or speed. And in that respect, Paradise is not alone: The hills above Berkeley and Oakland, where 25 people died in a fire in 1991, also featured narrow, winding roads that made escape more difficult.

“I worry about another deadly fire in the East Bay,” said Kramer, the researcher. “It burned before, and it’s going to burn again. And when it does, it’s going to be really bad.”


To rebuild … or say ‘enough is enough’?

In the aftermath of fire, local governments often face an impossible task of balancing the need to rebuild as quickly as possible—to get those who have lost everything back into their homes—with the need to prepare for the worst.

After three fires raged through the foothills of Butte County in 2008, including the one that prompted the first evacuation of Paradise, the county Board of Supervisors made the building code more flexible for homeowners to rebuild: Homeowners could have their permit applications expedited, and use lumber located on their own property for construction. This summer, the board renewed and expanded the exemption.

The building code carve-out represents a necessary compromise between smart planning and the needs of homeowner, many of whom could not afford to build a new house up to the current code, said DeAnda. Without the exemption, she said, many homeowners would have likely replaced their burnt homes with modular houses or trailers, which she said often present a bigger fire risk.

DeAnda, who spends most of her time raising awareness about fire safety across the country, lives in one such “ancient mobile home” in Concow, just east of Paradise. “It’s going up in 8 minutes if it catches on fire,” she said.

“There is a lot of emphasis, and understandably so, on prioritizing getting back to normal,” said Dr. Miranda Mockrin, a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service who has studied how communities respond to wildfire. She said most local governments avoid using building restrictions and regulations, instead favoring less-coercive, voluntary fire safety programs and educational outreach.

But rebuilding is a slow process. If communities want to require more fire-conscious development, “there is time,” she said.

For Chris Coursey, the mayor of Santa Rosa, which lost some 3,000 homes last year, there was never a question about whether to allow the incinerated communities of Coffey Park and Fountain Grove to rebuild.

“Under state law, people have the right to rebuild a legal home that they lose in a disaster. We don’t have the ability to tell them that they can’t rebuild” he said.

Nor would he want to, he added.

“If you live in California, you’re going to face an earthquake or a fire or a flood or a mudslide at some point—there’s no way to mitigate all of that risk,” he said.

Santa Rosa officials, he added, are trying to drive more development into the city’s downtown, away from its more-vulnerable edges. Since last year, nearly 60 homes have been reconstructed. They’ve been built up to the new, municipal fire codes, and many homeowners have elected to use more fire-resistant materials. But Coursey said only so much can be done to prepare for catastrophe.

“I think we’re more fire-aware; I think we’re more fire-ready,” he said. “But if that wind and that combination of low humidity and high temperature and high winds happened again, I think we’re vulnerable.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

While Desert Pot Springs is garnering national attention with its charge into the cannabis industry, the other end of the valley is starting to steal a little of that green spotlight: Irvine-based Cultivation Technologies has plans to open an 88,000-square-foot cannabis-production compound in Coachella.

“We saw an opportunity in the city of Coachella—an agricultural community desperately in need of economic development,” said Justin Beck, the president of Cultivation Technologies, to the OC Weekly. “After much discussion, the city said they wanted to participate, but essentially didn’t know where to start. So we helped them create an ordinance that fully aligns with (California’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, three bills which became law last year) in advance of its final implementation. We now have six acres of real estate in Coachella that we’re dedicating to the legal cultivation of marijuana for our Coachella-branded cannabis.”

Yes, Cultivation Technologies is naming its product after the city where it will be produced—a city which also shares its name with that really big music festival.

The Coachella-branded operation will be unique in the fact that it will include every part of the production process, including cultivation, manufacturing, on-site lab testing and distribution. The company also plans to work with other local growers to produce extracts.

“We will also act as a third-party service provider of extracts from local producers of cannabis. We’ll also then test, distribute and transport it from our site,” said Beck.

Richard Probst, the chief operating officer of Cultivation Technologies, boasted in a news release that the Coachella operation will be unparalleled.

"Our first six acres could rank among the most state-of-the-art cannabis facilities in the world,” he said. “With our proprietary LED technology and vertical grow systems, we believe our brand will resonate with patients who want the highest quality medicine available in California."

The city of Coachella’s cannabis green zone is the area east of Dillon Road along Avenue 48, an area that is also the city’s auto-wreckage zone.

While Desert Hot Springs is rising to fame for allowing large-scale cultivation, Coachella has gone much further by allowing not only cultivation, but also permitting extract and edible manufacturing and distribution.

The six-acre facility is scheduled to open in November of this year.


Backers of Bill Proposing a Steep Tax on Cannabis Show a Little Mercy

Introduced by Marin state Sen. Mike McGuire, Senate Bill 987 would have tacked an astronomical 15 percent “user fee” onto all retail cannabis purchases in California. (McGuire also introduced SB 643, one of last year’s three aforementioned regulatory bills that made up the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act.)

Americans for Safe Access has voiced strong opposition to the bill, arguing that the bill unfairly targets cannabis patients. “We do not assess ‘user fees’ on insulin, heart medications or chemotherapy,” read a recent newsletter sent by the group.

“Imposing additional tax will be bad for public safety,” said Don Duncan, ASA’s California director. “Inflating the cost of legal medical cannabis will force some patients to buy less-expensive cannabis from the unregulated illicit market—where there are no safety standards or oversight. That is the opposite of what regulations are supposed to accomplish.”

In response to pressure from the ASA and other patient advocates, lawmakers have now amended the bill, dropping the rate from 15 percent to 10 percent, and adding an exemption for patients with a state medical cannabis ID card who can prove their income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

These changes will indeed reduce the impact on lower-income patients, but the fee will still take unjust advantage of many patients. The state of California mandates a $66 fee for the medical cannabis ID card, but counties are free to add to this fee at will. Riverside County charges a $153 application fee for the card.

The bill has passed the Senate and is scheduled for consideration by the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee on Monday, June 20. Patient-advocate groups are asking cannabis patients and members of the public contact the committee in opposition of the fee.

Committee staff requests that letters regarding the bill be faxed (!) to 916-319-2198.


Where Is It Legal to Smoke in California?

I overheard a conversation between two people in a bar the other night about how great it is that cannabis is finally becoming legal and more socially accepted. But they also touched on a subject on which I was not clear on myself: Where, exactly, am I allowed to smoke my medication in California?

It seems people smoke everywhere these days, but what’s legal? Surely these bar patrons and I couldn’t be the only tokers in Cali wondering about this. Therefore, I did some research.

As with any law, it’s more about what you can’t do. According to SB420, Section 11362.79., medical cannabis users can light up anywhere but these places:

  • Any place where smoking is prohibited by law.
  • In or within 1,000 feet of the grounds of a school, recreation center, or youth center, unless the medical use occurs within a residence.
  • On a school bus.
  • While in a motor vehicle that is being operated.
  • While operating a boat.

The bill also states: “Except as authorized by law, every person who possesses not more than 28.5 grams of marijuana is guilty of an infraction punishable by a fine not more than $100.”

I haven’t smoked on a school bus since high school anyway. I can feel my prohibition-era paranoia easing already.

Published in Cannabis in the CV