One Developer’s Case for Building in a High-Risk Fire Zone

Tom Grable is more worried about earthquakes.

Photo of a row of homes in Santa Clarita, California, with hills in the background
A row of homes in Santa Clarita, California (Getty)

In the past five years, California’s wildfires have burned more than 30,000 structures, prompting debate over whether the state and local governments should allow development to continue in higher-risk parts of the state.

Tom Grable isn’t so worried. Grable, who runs the Orange County and Los Angeles divisions of Tri Pointe Homes, a billion-dollar development company with projects across the U.S., told me he has zero reservations about building in these zones, given advancements in building codes and materials.

“I would be much more concerned about the effects of earthquakes on our communities than fire,” he said over the phone. Grable also serves as the chair of the Government Affairs Committee for the California Building Industry Association, a trade association that lobbies the state government on behalf of builders.

Tri Pointe is currently building 1,220 new homes in its Skyline development, which sits atop a hill on the edge of Santa Clarita, a city just north of Los Angeles. Half the homes in Skyline are already complete, and more than half have been sold.

The area is classified as very high on the state’s fire-hazard-severity map. The nonprofit First Street Foundation has not yet incorporated the new Skyline addresses into its Risk Factor model, which looks at flood and fire risk to properties across the U.S., but gives the neighborhood next door—Canyon Country—an “extreme” risk of wildfire in the next 30 years, its highest rating. And fires have burned nearby in recent years: At least 20 wildfires have been reported in the Santa Clarita area since 1984, according to Risk Factor. The Tick fire of 2019, which forced the evacuation of 40,000 people, started just five miles away from Skyline.

In recent years, environmental groups in other parts of the state have sued to stop new developments over wildfire risk, and the state’s attorney general has backed a couple of these lawsuits. One big concern is that adding more people to an area will clog roads in the event of an evacuation, leading to deadly traffic jams. “If they put all those people on the road, there’d just be no way we could get out—we probably couldn’t even get on the road,” one resident near a proposed site in Northern California told The New York Times. A San Diego judge ruled to halt one development in part because of fire-evacuation concerns.

California has maintained strict building codes for homes in wildfire-prone areas since 2008. One recent paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that constructions built since the codes were implemented were 40 percent less likely to burn than a building from 1990. But, of course, some still have, as once unthinkably big fires, supercharged by climate change, have roared through the state in recent years.

Grable and I caught up to discuss building in these controversial areas—and how he thinks about wildfire risk when planning a new development.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: California obviously is in the middle of a housing crisis that’s bumping up against a wildfire crisis. When it comes to development, how do you balance those two?

Tom Grable: It’s really about balance. We recognize that we have a climate crisis, but on top of that, we have a housing crisis. And with that, there is a housing-inventory shortage, as well as affordability issues. California leads the country in homeless population. Our housing crisis is very real.

All the land that homes are built on today at one time, in all likelihood, were in a wildfire area. We continue to expand the footprint of the urbanized area by building into what’s called the WUI, the wildland-urban interface. That’s just been a part of the history of development in California.

Nyce: So basically what you’re saying is that at one point all of California was wildland, and the fire risk was all the same.

Grable: As far as building in those areas. Now, however, we do recognize that with climate change, and some of the areas that we are now building into, they may be a bit more prone to wildfire.

The way we adapt is we design our neighborhoods and our master plans and our homes with methods that are created to mitigate against those dangers.

Nyce: Let’s start at the top. How do you typically approach development in a very high-risk fire zone?

Grable: So the first thing we do when looking at a new opportunity is we spend an extraordinary amount of time, along with our own internal resources as well as external resources—consultants and the agencies that have jurisdiction—poring over the land that we’re looking at.

To put it in a nutshell, if we can achieve a fire-safe plan, we proceed. And if we can’t, then we’re wasting our time and money.

Every piece of land has its own challenge. And that doesn’t matter whether you’re building into the wildfire areas or you’re building in the downtown areas, in infill. Almost every square mile of California is vulnerable to at least one natural disaster, whether it’s earthquakes or floods or wildfires.

A lot of people want us to focus more on the infill areas to reduce the amount of urban and suburban sprawl. But that’s difficult for a number of reasons as well, including greater cost and NIMBYism.

Nyce: Back to wildfires. You said you brought in some consultants. What kind of fire researchers and experts are brought in, and what are their roles in the process?

Grable: We have consultants that specifically have expertise in fire-safe planning. And so they know the agencies and regulations. They know where regulations are going. And so they’re able to give us an ascertainment of the risks. And then we have to make an assessment.

Nyce: Tell me a little bit about how you think about fire-risk when it comes to building materials and architectural styles.

Grable: I’m going to start with a little bit of a recent history lesson. In 2008, the first set of wildland-urban-interface fire-safety regulations were created and adopted in California, which were the first of their kind in the nation. That code continues to be updated and face scrutiny.

Nyce: Are you just building to code, or are there any additional precautions on top of it you chose to take to mitigate fire risk?

Grable: The codes are very stringent. So the codes are really, really good. Keep in mind that that minimum is still a very high bar. Skyline is a perfect example of the implementation of everything that was adopted in the regulations back in ’08.

To design a fire-safe community, you have to start with the land plan. And providing fire protection starts with the grading of the site, the vegetation management, creating defensible spaces, setbacks of the buildings from certain parts of the perimeter of the property, having fuel breaks, and other community-design features that are maintained by the community association. And those features are also strategically located around the perimeter of the development based upon what kind of vegetation is abutting us.

Skyline has grassland. We don’t have a lot of trees as a fuel source.

Nyce: What kinds of materials and architectural styles are you looking at to mitigate risk?

Grable: There’s a long list. So, for example, there are Class A roof coverings. We’re using tile, predominantly, that is all fire-rated. We also are using one-hour-resistant exterior walls and doors, multipaned windows with tempered glass. Vents on the roof are now designed to prevent ember intrusion. A lot of homes that burn in wildfire areas are homes that have not been built since 2010, and still may have open eaves and open vents. The embers get inside those, and a lot of those home fires start with fire igniting the attic.

We have indoor fire sprinklers. We have a homeowners’ association that’s there in perpetuity, that’s examining people’s landscape plans and making sure that they’re not putting combustible materials in their backyards.

We also are looking at the roadway widths, looking at how people are able to exit the community in case of a fire, setting limits on things like one-way roads in smaller developments, making sure the grade of the roadways doesn’t exceed 16 degrees, and having turnarounds that are large enough at the end of cul-de-sacs to allow for emergency equipment.

For master-planned communities, we also do some additional things like paying attention to evacuation routes, wildfire-buffer areas, and the long-term funding and maintenance of those buffer areas through the homeowners’ associations.

In large master-plan communities, we’re even looking at undergrounding all the electrical power lines so that there’s no exposed power lines within the community. We also look at water supply for fire suppression, an actual evacuation plan, and risk-reduction programs.

Nyce: Do you live in a fire zone?

Grable: I don’t live in a primary fire zone—although when the Silverado fire occurred in 2020, my house was in the next neighborhood that was alerted to be prepared to evacuate.

Nyce: Did you voluntarily evacuate or stay?

Grable: We stayed. But if it jumped the toll road any further, then we would have evacuated. And my home was not built after 2010. So it doesn’t have the same degree of protection in homes that we’re building now.

In fact, to use that as an example, I actually know the numbers on this: During that fire in 2020, 60,000 people were evacuated. The majority of the neighborhoods were designed since 2010, and so had that excellent planning, updated building codes, having the roads configured and sized appropriately—also, having a great fire response always helps too. The L.A. Times actually reported that in communities that were built under the state’s most recent fire code—despite 45-mile-an-hour gusts launching embers into the suburban sprawl—not a single home was lost or seriously damaged.

That is a testament that the new regulations work.

Nyce: Did that change your perspective at all, having fire so close to your actual home?

Grable: No, actually, it reinforced it. It basically showed me that the methods we use now work. In fact, they work so well that, in actuality, communities should want to have new housing on the edges of their communities because, in effect, we’re creating the wall that is protecting the older stock housing in the area.

Nyce: What would you say to someone who’s interested in purchasing a home from you, but is worried it’ll burn in the next 10 years?

Grable: I’d say look at the data. And the data supports that a home in a new community up against a wildland area is at no greater risk—and arguably is at less risk—than homes that are built even just a mile or so inboard from those perimeter areas but were built many years ago.

Nyce: A critic would argue that building in these areas is dangerous or wasteful. How would you respond to that?

Grable: Well, where else would we build?

There are critics who are demanding that new housing be placed within the current urban footprint. However, infill development has its own challenges. You’re not ever going to solve the housing crisis as it is today by building in just one place or the other.

Nyce: Are there any places in the state that you flat out consider just too risky to build on because of wildfire risk?

Grable: No, that doesn’t concern me in the least. Because methods that we’re using now are tried and true, and we’re creating neighborhoods that are just as safe as, if not safer than, existing housing stock in older neighborhoods.  

Nyce: The First Street Foundation gives next-door Canyon Country, Santa Clarita, an “extreme” rating for risk of wildfire in the next 30 years. Los Angeles County is third on its list of U.S. counties with the highest number of properties with at least 0.03 percent annual burn probability in 2022. Do stats like these worry you at all?

Grable: No. Because, remember, all of the area that’s built on right now is no longer designated as high-risk area; the reason why it’s no longer high-risk is because there’s something built on it.

So as we continue to—and, again, I’m not talking about wanton urban sprawl for the sake of urban sprawl—but as you incrementally develop further into those wildland areas, it’s no different than what was built before.

Nyce: Do you ever have any doubts about building in these zones?

Grable: Zero.

Nyce: Nothing ever keeps you up at night?

Grable: No. I would be much more concerned about the effects of earthquakes on our communities than fire. And even then, our homes are designed much more structurally sound today than they were 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. New home construction has come a long way, to mitigate against a variety of natural hazards. So if given the choice, I would feel more safe from any of those natural hazards in a new home than I would in an older home.