Viewpoint: Clara Oaks development in severe fire zone
by Char Miller
The Clara Oaks development—40+ luxury homes proposed to be built above Claremont’s Webb Canyon on a site that CALFIRE has designated a High Severity Fire Zone—will prove disastrous. That’s why I’m urging city officials to reject the project.
If the Planning Commission and the City Council greenlight the project, however, they’ll be responsible for placing its future residents directly and inevitably in harm’s way. They’ll also be sanctioning the devastation of a 100-acre swath of irreplaceable wildland habitat.
This is not an over-the-top claim but is based on my more than two decades of research, writing, and teaching about wildland fire in the western United States. That work leads me to the simple and grim conclusion that the Clara Oaks project, accessed by a narrow road and situated in our flammable foothills, will burn. When it does, it will rival the destructive fury of the 2003 Padua/Grand Prix fire that incinerated Palmer Canyon and portions of Claraboya.
Any future conflagration will be more dangerous because of the global climate crisis’ impact on wildfires. The U.S. southwest has been drying out since the 1980s and will continue to do so, a stark reality that has led to a string of horrendous fire seasons. Sixteen of California’s 20 worst fires have occurred since 2003. Worse yet: five of the largest six fires in the state were burning simultaneously in August and September 2020.
Because our foothills and mountains have not had a major fire in nearly 20 years, inland Southern California and Claremont are flashpoints. The return-fire cycle for chaparral is roughly 15-25 years, and because chaparral dominates the Clara Oaks site and its surroundings, odds are that this landscape will burn sooner rather than later.
Constructing Clara Oaks will heighten this risk. A recent Forest Service scientific paper notes that houses built in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) act as accelerants. One of its key findings is that “settled areas with little wildland vegetation that are near large blocks of wildland vegetation [are] where the greatest total amount of building destruction has occurred in California.” The Clara Oaks site matches that description: It abuts the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park and County and Federal wildlands. Fire in one area will mean fire in another.
This is especially true when combustible structures are in place. Houses cars, propane tanks and high-voltage wires have routinely touched off wildfires and/or energized them. The 2020 Bobcat Fire, which consumed 115,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, resulted from a SoCal Edison overhead conductor (note: two major utilities’ wires run just north of Clara Oaks). Sparks cascading from a Golden State Water Co.’s chop-saw ignited the 2013 Foothill Fire that burned the Bernard Field Station.
Clara Oaks would add to this disturbing legacy. Section 3.17-Transportation of the Initial Study reveals the project’s failure to conform with California Environmental Quality Act climate-mitigation requirements. These issues are central to the state’s precedent-setting intervention in a lawsuit against Lake County’s flawed Environmental Impact Report for a major development in a High Severity Fire Zone. Clara Oaks would be a prime target for similar litigation.
Of greater concern are the unacknowledged dangers residents and firefighters will face on Webb Canyon Road when a fire erupts in the hillsides. The steep-walled topography will channel the wind-driven flames southward and its furious run will collide with the human geography—the single, narrow road with a pinch-point bridge that leads to safety. Even if Clara Oaks evacuees manage to escape via the development’s curving, smoke-filled streets, they will be caught behind their fleeing downhill neighbors. The resulting gridlock will block fire engines dispatched to fight the inferno. This is not an apocalyptic fantasy but the chilling subject of countless post-wildfire photographs of burned-out vehicles littering roads once perceived as escape routes.
Clara Oaks, in short, fails to meet city, county, and state requirements. The Claremont Planning Commission and City Council need no other grounds to reject the proposed development outright. Doing so will protect the community’s safety, health and welfare while preserving its natural heritage.
Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and author of Public Lands/Public Debates: A Century of Controversy and America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands.