As a city resident, Linda Conroy never thought she’d have to defend her home against a wildfire. Her wake-up call came in 2003.
A wildfire scorched several acres of a nearby olive orchard and the grass-lined canyon behind her Folsom home, coming within 20 feet of her back porch. More than 40 homes in the neighborhood were evacuated, but none were damaged.
Conroy has owned a home in the Folsom Bluffs neighborhood since 1979. It’s a hillside community close to the conveniences of the city, but where many of the homes have sweeping views of Folsom Dam and acres of wild grassland.
After that close call in 2003, Conroy’s perception of her surroundings changed. She got heavily involved with the local fire council that helps educate city residents about wildfires and has persuaded her neighbors to spend thousands of dollars to clear brush and tree limbs from the open space near their homes.
“We live with the threat on a daily basis and we’re very aware that it can happen in a city,” Conroy said, standing on her back porch on a recent morning. “It can happen anywhere at anytime, but you do the best you can.”
As the Tubbs Fire that destroyed the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa showed again last month, urban and suburban areas are susceptible to devastating blazes in Northern California. And that risk extends to the densely populated communities bordering the Sierra foothills near Sacramento.
More than 4,600 homes in Sacramento-area cities stand in neighborhoods where fire officials say there is a high or very high wildfire threat, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of local hazard prevention plans. They include nearly 2,000 homes in Folsom alone. Cities such as Elk Grove and Citrus Heights are farther from the foothills but still have dozens of high-risk homes..
With wooded parkways and open grasslands bordering residential neighborhoods, an estimated 365,000 people living in urban and suburban areas in the region face at least a moderate threat of wildfire, The Bee’s analysis found. Thousands of homes in Sacramento, Elk Grove, Roseville, Lincoln and Citrus Heights are in moderate threat zones. Those numbers do not include people living in rural areas of the region, where homes stand among wooded and grassy areas and where the fire threat is often high.
The wildfire threats facing cities in the region were identified in Local Hazard Mitigation Plans updated by Sacramento and Placer counties last year. Some cities – including Folsom – have fire councils that issue their own reports every few years, analyzing fire risk down to the neighborhood level.
The state’s Cal Fire agency also maps fire hazard severity zones for California’s 58 counties. The most recent maps, adopted in 2007, show large swaths of El Dorado County are in high or very high hazard zones. Placerville is surrounded by very high hazard zones and the hillsides northeast of Folsom Lake are considered high and very high hazard areas.
The Cal Fire maps are being updated. Given the October fires that ravaged Northern California and new technology that can use wind models to predict fire behavior, some areas that have been considered low-risk may be placed in hazard zones, experts said. Climate change has led to more severe weather patterns and suburban development is spreading into former wildland, placing more communities at risk.
Bill Stewart, who helped draft the 2007 maps, said the data was generated by examining a region’s topography and vegetation, and otherwise “wasn’t the most sophisticated model.”
“Clearly, we are having more and more wildfires in all types of vegetation and it’s clearly worse this decade than it was last decade,” said Stewart, a forestry specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach.
Coffey Park – separated by Highway 101 from the kind of hilly, tree-lined terrain generally associated with high wildfire risks – was not near a high fire severity zone on Cal Fire maps. It also was not considered a risky area in maps generated by the city of Santa Rosa. But wind gusts of close to 60 miles per hour threw embers from fires in the hills one mile or more, igniting a powerful blaze that leveled much of the suburban-style neighborhood.
“I think (the Santa Rosa fire) served as a wake up for us that that sort of destruction could happen on such a scale,” said Susie Kocher, a Tahoe-based natural resources adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension. “We’ve gotten comfortable thinking it’s a Southern California problem, but clearly it’s not. This is California – we have to be thinking about all the hazards in our landscape.
“There is no safe place,” she said.
Wind is driving force
The driving force behind the severity of the Santa Rosa blaze was wind. While severe wind is more common in that part of the state during the month of October than it is here, gusts between 20 and 35 mph are common in Sierra foothill communities near Sacramento.
In Lincoln, wind gusts exceeded 20 mph roughly 150 times in Octobers between 2008 and 2017, according to federal weather data logged every hour. Gusts between 30 and 35 mph occurred about 15 times during those time periods.
A weather station at Ben Bolt Ridge, a few miles south of Folsom, recorded wind gusts of 44 mph on October 13, 2009, federal data show. That day, wind gusts above 40 mph were recorded during five separate hours.
Among Sacramento suburbs, the most severe wildfire risk is in Folsom, where more than 44,000 Folsom residents live in areas facing at least a moderate risk of wildfire, according to a Sacramento County hazard plan updated in December 2016.
Conroy was the chair of the Folsom Fire Safe Council when it helped craft a community wildfire protection plan with the city of Folsom and Cal Fire in 2013. That report said “varied topography, fuel loading, and history of wildland fire ignitions combined with extensive and diverse use activities has many of the elements for a wildfire occurrence of catastrophic portions” in Folsom.
“Folsom is not immune to numerous types of grass and brush fires and many of them may accelerate into a large urban interface wildfire. Such a situation could lead to evacuation of large portions of the population and the potential for significant loss of personal property, structures and rangeland,” the report reads.
One fire hotspot is along the American River Canyon, from Folsom Dam to Lake Natoma, where steep terrain lined with dry brush could allow fires to spread rapidly before firefighters have a chance to attack, according to the city report. Some homes in the neighborhoods near the canyon have wood shake roofs, which can ignite if touched by flying embers. Put together, those conditions provide “ample opportunity for fire to spread into residential areas,” according to the report.
Another area of risk is in eastern Folsom, where open fields create an “opportunity for a large-scale fire to start and spread uncontrollably into developed areas or into the foothills of El Dorado Hills,” according to the report.
Multiple wildfires occur within the Folsom city limits each year; Fire Chief Felipe Rodriguez said there were 15 wildfires in the city last year alone. But city officials said they’ve avoided large-scale destruction thanks to vegetation clearing and public outreach.
Fire department personnel drive around the city each year and urge homeowners with unkempt properties to clean weeds, trash and shrubs from at least 30 feet around their homes. The city sent warning letters to 30 homeowners last year, and all had cleared the dangerous brush within a month, Rodriguez said.
“As a city, we’ve done a great job throughout the years to be better prepared,” he said. “But these incidents that occurred (in Sonoma County and elsewhere) always open your eyes to what can be done a little better.”
Grassland, oak pose risk
The March 2016 hazard plan for Placer County estimates nearly 50,000 people living in Lincoln, Loomis, Rocklin and Roseville face at least a moderate threat of wildfire. Farther up the hills, most people in Auburn and the entire city of Colfax are under threat.
It is “highly likely” that wildfires will occur within the city limits of Rocklin and Lincoln in the future, the Placer County report said. Grassland and oak woodland next to new residential areas in both cities pose the greatest risk.
In Rocklin, fire hazard zones exist along much of Highway 65, in the northern parts of the city and along the Placer County line near the Amtrak rail line, maps show. Much of Lincoln is also in a moderate zone, affecting nearly half the city’s population.
“Lincoln has a significant amount of dry range grass that is susceptible to wildland fires that can move quickly if accompanied by a stiff breeze. In addition, there is a great potential for wildland fires in the more open hillside areas in the eastern part of the City,” the local hazard report reads.
A consolidated fire department protects Lincoln and Rocklin, and a “key component” of the agency’s work is trying to prevent wildfires, said Fire Chief Bill Hack.
Every spring, the department dispatches herds of goats and sheep to grassland areas to graze on vegetation that could fuel a blaze. Like Folsom, the department tries to educate homeowners that they live in a fire zone and should clean their gutters and clear brush from around their homes.
“We do everything we can to mitigate or reduce the risk, but there’s nothing we can do to completely eliminate the risk,” Hack said. “People think if you’re not living up in the forest, you don’t have that threat. That’s not the case.”