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As California's Population Grows, People Are Moving Into More Fire-Prone Areas


Survivors of the recent fires in Northern California are turning their attention to rebuilding. Housing was already in short supply there, and as the population grows, more people are moving into fire-prone areas. Lauren Sommer of member station KQED reports.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Teri Shore is one of the lucky Sonoma County residents. She did evacuate as she watched the fires approach her home.

TERI SHORE: From the north, the south and the east.

SOMMER: But her house was spared, and now she's focusing on how her community will rebuild because in her day job, Shore works on land use at a nonprofit - the Greenbelt Alliance. And even before the fires, there simply wasn't enough housing. Now there are thousands of people who need to rebuild.

SHORE: It is, you know, a moment where we can think about doing things a little bit differently.

SOMMER: Because for a long time, the way cities grew was to sprawl.

SHORE: For decades, people wanted single-family homes and were willing to drive for hours to have that American dream of, you know, the white picket fence and the home.

SOMMER: And that's put many Californians in the fire zone.

JON KEELEY: So clearly, a lot of people are in dangerous areas.

SOMMER: Jon Keeley is a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. About one-third of Californians live in the WUI - the wildland-urban interface, as scientists call it. It's a place prone to fires whether or not people live there.

KEELEY: So we need to respect the fact that these are going to happen in the future and that what we need to do is we need to have communities adapt to the fires.

SOMMER: Keeley says how we build those communities has a huge effect on how many homes are lost in fires. And instead of sprawl, there are ways to reduce the risk.

KEELEY: One is to take existing development areas and fill in those areas within the development.

SOMMER: And this is what that could look like. I'm in downtown San Jose where a fleet of cement trucks is pouring the foundation for a huge new project. It's going to have several hundred units of housing, retail space. And it's in walking distance to a public transit hub. So this is what they call infill development, and it's part of a new vision for San Jose.

SAM LICCARDO: The question isn't whether or not we're going to grow. The question is, how are we going to grow?

SOMMER: Sam Liccardo is the mayor of San Jose. He says like a lot of cities, San Jose is like a doughnut - growing on the edges, but not a lot going on in the middle.

LICCARDO: And we've got a lot of work now to revitalize that middle.

SOMMER: Google is negotiating with San Jose to build a tech campus downtown, which would bring thousands of jobs. The city is trying to fast-track housing development downtown, but it's not easy.

LICCARDO: It is more expensive to build infill development in downtowns.

SOMMER: Permitting can be messy, too. And condos need to be built all at once, not phased in like a suburban subdivision. And many developers are just more accustomed to subdivisions, like a 900-house development being planned in the San Jose foothills now. Add to that a crisis in affordable housing.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We are here to say, vamos San Jose.

SOMMER: As I'm talking to the mayor, protesters are gathered right outside city hall, demanding that the city guarantee that affordable homes and good jobs come with Google's new downtown campus.

In the North Bay, before the fires, Sonoma County also struggled with infill development. But Teri Shore of the Greenbelt Alliance says the opportunity is there now that a new commuter train began running a few months ago.

SHORE: Now we need to do it, you know, stop talking and planning but actually start building in the right places in the right way.

SOMMER: Shore says it's a chance to break the pattern that has put so many Californians in the path of wildfires. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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