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A recent article by Josh Cohen in the UrbanLand magazine highlights the work of ULI’s Advisory Service panel, in collaboration with ULI SF, in the North Bay. Read below for a brief excerpt and access the full article here.
In 2017, the Tubbs Fire burned across 36,807 acres (14,900 ha) in Sonoma and Napa counties, killing 22 people and destroying 5,636 structures, half of which were homes in Santa Rosa, Sonoma’s largest city. In 2019, the historically large Kincade Fire burned 77,758 acres (31,500 ha) in Sonoma County, destroying 374 structures. Then in 2020, the Glass Fire burned 67,484 (27,300 ha) acres in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Such wildfires have become an all-too-regular part of life in Sonoma County, California, home to vineyards, rolling foothills, coastal forests, and about half a million full-time residents. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires in Sonoma and—without significant mitigation and adaptation—the risk of more destroyed homes, businesses, ecosystems, and lives will continue to rise.
Sonoma County’s Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA) turned to ULI’s Urban Resilience and Advisory Services programs to help create a vision for a more sustainable, equitable, economically stable, fire-resilient future for the county and its towns and cities. RCPA sponsored an ULI Advisory Services panel, with support from the Kresge Foundation and guidance from an interdepartmental Sonoma County and City of Santa Rosa Steering Committee.
In April, panelists presented recommendations for how Sonoma can get to that fire-resilient future with better land management, infill development and affordable housing, more reliable energy grids, expanded government partnerships, and much more. The panel was made up of a diverse range of volunteer experts, including panel chair Molly McCabe, CEO and founder of HaydenTanner; Jose Bodipo-Memba, director of sustainable communities, Sacramento Municipal Utility District and vice chair of ULI Sacramento; Christopher Calott, associate professor, University of California, Berkeley, Real Estate Development and Design program; Jeremy Klemic, associate principal, SWA; John Macomber, senior lecturer, Harvard Business School; Molly Mowery, executive director, Community Wildfire Planning Center; Peter Quintanilla, urban design studio leader, Michael Baker International; Diana Ramirez, director, economic development and strategic Investments, Travis County (Texas); and Neil Webb, director, Ramboll.
The panel drew on briefing materials prepared by RCPA, research, public records, and interviews with Sonoma County residents and leaders to craft its recommendations.
“The pandemic is just the latest of a series of catastrophic disasters we’ve had to face down since 2017,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors member Lynda Hopkins in the panel’s opening remarks. “I am proud, though, that out of this collective community trauma there’s also a tremendous sense of urgency and a willingness to take risks to create substantial change to address the climate crisis we face.”
The panel suggested that increased fire resilience for Sonoma County will come from scaling up land management programs and applying fireproofing standards to more structures. The land management goal is not to suppress every fire, but to try to reduce the severity of the fires and the resulting damages.
“We’re really starting to understand what living with fire means,” said Klemic. “I cannot stress enough how much healthy forestry practices will play a critical role in fire resiliency.”
The panel proposed a series of strategically located regional “protective corridors” with carefully managed vegetation that would slow the advancement of fires into developed areas and provide a safer, more effective firefighting environment. Klemic, whose background is in landscape architecture, said that with this strategy—along with thinning forests and replanting non-native vegetation with fire-tolerant tree species—Sonoma County can greatly reduce the risk of future megafires.
To further protect communities from wildfire, the panelists proposed extending existing bike/pedestrian trails as outer rings to towns and cities. These trails would increase residents’ quality of life, add an attraction for the visitors who make up the county’s considerable tourist economy, and let animals like cows and goats graze along the trails to keep flammable plant life at bay.
In many instances, the work is already underway in Sonoma County to implement versions of the panel’s ideas. After an exceptionally dry winter in Northern California, the upcoming fire season looms large, and changes to bring about a more sustainable, wildfire resistant future cannot come soon enough.
Since 1947, ULI’s Advisory Services program has provided strategic advice to communities and organizations on a wide variety of land use, real estate, planning, urban design, economic development, and public policy challenges. Learn More