Los Angeles just green-lighted a development on land that's 8 times the size of San Francisco, and scientists are warning it's in wildfire territory

Ian Lee/FlickrZones at Tejon Ranch Co. have a high wildfire risk.
  • Los Angeles County’s board of supervisors approved a plan to build a massive mixed-use development on land that’s eight times the size of San Francisco.
  • The plan was previously met controversy among environmental groups that are concerned about rising pollution levels and the destruction of natural habitats.
  • Now, scientists and locals are worried about wildfire risk, especially in light of the recent California blazes.
  • While developers insist they’re safeguarding the territory, wildfire experts say the main cause of fires – human activity – can’t be accounted for in the project’s design.

Los Angeles has approved a plan to build a mixed-use development on land that’s eight times the size of San Francisco. Earlier this week, the county’s board of supervisors voted in favour of the Centennial project, a sprawling suburban oasis that’s being touted as a solution to the region’s housing shortage.

The development could soon introduce about 19,000 new homes LA County, bringing the state closer to its goal of adding 100,000 new units per year. Centennial’s business park is also expected to generate about 23,000 jobs.

Read more:
A tug-of-war is ongoing over plans to build a new Southern California town on land that’s 8 times the size of San Francisco

There’s one major problem: The development will sit on territory that’s extremely prone to wildfires.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the land falls within “high” or “very high” fire-hazard zones, which have seen numerous blazes since the 1960s.

Tejon ranch 3Keith Skelton/FlickrTejon Pass in Southern California.

Centennial was reminded of this risk in November with the onset of two major California wildfires, which claimed more than 90 lives and destroyed about 19,000 homes – the same amount that the project is expected to deliver.

Representatives from the project’s developer, Tejon Ranch Co., have said the new construction provides an opportunity to get things right.

In a statement provided to Business Insider, the company’s vice president of corporate communications, Barry Zoeller, said that Centennial’s fire plan had been peer reviewed by experts at Wildland Resource Management and approved by the LA County Fire Department.

He also pointed out that there have been no fires on the site in the last 15 years, and only four in the last 50 years.

“From the very beginning of the planning process, Centennial has focused on minimising fire risk and maximizing fire defence,” Zoeller said.

But therein lies the issue. Many scientists and locals insist that the development can’t be fireproofed, citing evidence that most wildfires are the result of human activities, such as neglecting campfires, flinging cigarette butts, burning debris, or committing arson.

According to Marko Bourne, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official who now leads Booz Allen Hamilton’s emergency management, disaster assistance, and risk practice, the only real way to minimise wildfire risk is to avoid living in or next to forested areas.

“The denser we build [in these areas], the more we’re going to see destruction,” he said.

Only one out of four local supervisors pointed to this evidence as a reason to curtail the Centennial project on Tuesday. Supervisor Kathryn Barger defended the project’s use of flame-resistant materials and said she was relying on the opinion of fire officials who had approved the project.

The week before, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to illustrate the danger.

“Natural areas that have burned in the past will likely burn again,” said scientist Tiffany Yap. “It’s only a matter of time before Centennial leads to more human ignitions.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has released its own campaign called “Stop Centennial,” which argues that the development would destroy natural wildlife habitats.

In a public statement, an attorney for the center called Centennial “one of the most destructive sprawl projects in county history.”

Zoeller responded to these concerns with a statement of his own.

“It’s unfortunate that the Center for Biological Diversity is not satisfied that 90% of Tejon Ranch will be protected as open space,” he said. “Given the opposition to new housing development…by groups like CBD, is it any wonder that California is in the midst of a housing crisis?”

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