The reality of climate change is upon us. Weather patterns have changed, and seasons have been altered. We experience more intense heat, more frequent, destructive storms, wide-ranging wildfires, and more destructive cold. Tornadoes—the spawn of conflicting hot and cold air masses—touch down in places they were once almost unheard of. What was scientific prognostication only a few years ago has become reality. It’s also a reality that most of the structures that house our homes—particularly high-rise multifamily buildings—were not designed for these types of changing climate events. While that’s a chilling thought, today’s communities have no choice but to deal with that reality, as well as plan for what may be ahead.
The New Reality
For communities built along the nation’s coasts, two of the most pressing and dramatic ramifications of climate change today are the rise in sea level and the increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms. More concerningly, these two events often overlap, causing even greater peril—and now such threats extend even to inland and landlocked communities. In the western half of the country, severe droughts and out-of-control wildfires compound to cause destruction not just of individual communities, but of entire towns, regions, and natural habitats.
Steve Kohlmann is a biologist and forester with a Ph.D. in wildlife management. He has extensive experience as an environmental consultant throughout the western United States. In Nevada, he says, the invasion of foreign grasses into sagebrush communities has altered the ecosystem in a way that significantly increases the risk of wildfires. “These invasive grasses have changed the fire regime from every 60 years to every three to five years,” continues Kohlmann. “Losing our natural sagebrush has dropped a whole component out of the ecosystem. These new grasses look green in January, but have no value for cattle. It’s changed the whole ecosystem.”
Kohlmann explains that these ecosystem changes are affecting when and how fires burn. According to him, a lot of new single and multifamily communities in the West are built at the edges of existing residential areas—which themselves abut native shrublands. Developers often make decisions about landscaping based more on attracting the eye of potential buyers than on what’s appropriate for the native ecosystem, planting grass and trees that are more vulnerable to drought and fire than hardier native species. Consequently, not only are many newly built communities positioned right at the fire front, the imported grasses and trees surrounding them feed the fires that are happening more frequently. “Lack of management causes tremendous fire risk,” says Kohlmann. “These invasive grasses, the drought, and the lack of grazing land for livestock in many areas all allow more fuel to build up around the edges of these developments. Whole communities are burning in places where no one ever thought about it before.”
On top of poor environmental management, “Forests have become too dense,” Kohlmann continues. “Native forests had about 30 trees per acre—now we have 150 trees per acre,” which provides still more fuel for fires. “If you move up into the higher country where you have juniper and conifer trees, untended needle kill from conifers increases fire as well.”