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California wants to limit the vegetation within 5 feet of a house to reduce fire risk

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In many neighborhoods, homes are hugged by greenery, but experts say in some areas that greenery can increase a home's wildfire risk. Officials in California are drafting rules that would strictly limit landscaping within 5 feet of a home in high-risk areas. Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk saw a demonstration of why that zone is important.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Even in a wildfire, most fires start small.

ANNE COPE: We've got spot fires here. See that beautiful circle of spot fire?

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAMES CRACKLING)

SOMMER: Two buildings in Sacramento, Calif., side by side, are being set on fire. It's a demonstration being led by Anne Cope of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. It's a nonprofit that studies what makes buildings vulnerable. The buildings are surrounded by bark mulch, and that's where firefighters started the flames.

COPE: And this one is lit.

SOMMER: This is how many houses burn in a wildfire. Embers blown ahead of the fire get caught in mulch or plants. Around one building, that mulch fire spreads to the shrubs.

COPE: All of this vegetation is healthy and green. And you can see that one in the corner there. Look how quickly it's flaming, the one right in front of the window.

SOMMER: From there, the fire goes up the building wall, eventually consuming the whole thing.

COPE: There goes the window. You can see the pieces have melted.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAMES CRACKLING)

SOMMER: But next door, the other structure is fine, because between the house and the bark mulch is a stone walkway. The fire stopped when it hit that hardscaped barrier. This zone within 5 feet of a house is key, Cope says, and it's what needs to change.

COPE: We need to take our beautiful landscaping and our flowers that we enjoy so much as humans, and we need to move that away from the house, where we can see it from the window and still enjoy our gardens, just not right up next to the structure.

SOMMER: Walkways, gravel or patio should be right next to the house instead, she says. It's a big shift from how homes are designed today.

COPE: Wildfire adaptation is going to take a different aesthetic.

SOMMER: Wildfires have taken a massive toll in California in recent years. Tens of thousands of homes have been lost. Human-caused climate change is expected to keep making fires more intense. That led to California passing a new law limiting the vegetation from 0 to 5 feet from a home only in areas that are prone to wildfires. The state is drafting that regulation now, and when it goes into effect, it'll be the first statewide rule of its kind in the country.

FRANK BIGELOW: Emotionally, this is a huge change for people.

SOMMER: Frank Bigelow helps oversee California's defensible space program at Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency. Many homes already get inspections for the vegetation within a hundred feet. Existing rules require clearing out dead brush and cutting back trees in that zone. Bigelow says about 80% of people comply.

BIGELOW: We expect that number to go down tremendously when we implement the 0 to 5 because most of those people who are compliant now won't be compliant in the new part.

SOMMER: Bigelow says it'll take a lot of education to help Californians comply with the new 5 foot rules, even at his own parents' house.

BIGELOW: When I told them, out in the front yard where you have the mulch and you have that little tree right out in front of the window, all of that's going to have to come out. And my dad said, the heck it is. We paid a lot of money to have that landscaping done. I'm not moving that.

SOMMER: The tension over these rules has led to a delay. They were supposed to be ready last January. Now, it'll be 2025 at the earliest. Regulators are still debating whether allowing certain kinds of plants is safe, like green grass or mature trees without branches touching the house. State firefighters are hoping that Californians will be open to rethinking their yards, with climate change driving wildfires to become even more destructive.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.