In 2020, California lawmakers passed a bill to create an “ember-resistant zone” within five feet of residences – known as “zone 0” – as wildfire threats increased.
Now authorities in the state are working on rules that could ban any vegetation in the zone in areas at high risk for wildfire, according to NPR. However, the outlet noted that there may be pushback from the public.
“Emotionally, this is a huge change for people,” explained Frank Bigelow, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire’s Community Wildfire Preparedness & Mitigation. “Most people who are compliant now, won’t be compliant.”
He said his own parents are resistant to the idea.
“The heck it is,” Bigelow’s father told him after learning he may have to remove a tree in his yard. “We paid a lot of money to have that landscaping done. I’m not moving that.”
California already has the strongest defensible space laws in the nation for some time, NPR said. These regulations are fueled by the very real risk of destruction due to wildfires.
Over the past six years, nearly 40,000 homes and buildings in the state have been destroyed due to wildfires and those blazes also caused billions of dollars in damage, per NPR. Just last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that “climate change has ratcheted up the risk of explosive wildfire growth in California by 25% and will continue to drive extreme fire behavior for decades to come.”
Since 2008, 193 civilians and 32 firefighters lost their lives in wildfires, according to Cal Matters.
University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources explained that defensible spaces such as zone 0 help prevent wildfire destruction. These spaces also allow firefighters room to put out fires.
“Vegetation that does not ignite easily should be planted in the defensible space. Landscape plants protect soils from erosion and provide aesthetic and ecological benefits,” in the larger, 100-foot zone, said the university.
“Trees and shrubs are acceptable as long as they are widely spaced and do not provide a continuous path of fuel for a fire to climb from the ground to a tree crown or roof (a fuel ladder). Proper landscape maintenance can dramatically improve the fire safety of a yard.”
A no vegetation rule in the five-foot zone would be easier for fire inspectors to enforce, said NPR. At the same time, regulators are concerned that few people will comply, so they are considering allowing certain vegetation.
In fact, the rules were supposed to be finalized this January, but NPR reported that “tension” resulted in delays. Changes are expected to apply to new construction in 2025, however. Those new homes should have a “flipped” layout, with walkways next to homes and landscaping further away from the structures. Existing homes would have until 2026 to comply, and insurance companies are offering incentives for adhering to the new regulations.
“We understand that it’s not going to be a very easy change for some homeowners,” said Daniel Berlant, acting state fire marshal with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency. “But the science is very simple: even a green, well-maintained plant will catch on fire and it’s going to destroy your home.”
NPR said the rules could also have an impact on other western states who look to California as a leader on fire protection policy.