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What does wildfire danger have to do with the affordable housing crisis in the West?

A judge reversed approval for a housing project in California — the third such reversal — because wildfire evacuation wasn’t clear

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Firefighters monitor a controlled burn.

Firefighters monitor a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.

Nic Coury, Associated Press

The southern California city Santee has to toss its plans for a large housing project, a judge has ruled.

At issue is wildfire danger and whether residents of the would-be housing community could evacuate safely, according to the news website SFgate.com. It’s the third California housing project a judge has ordered to hit the brakes after it received an earlier green light. In each case, wildfires were the primary concern.

And as drought in the West gets worse, California will likely not be the only state where wildfire potential butts up against housing and other community needs. As Forbes reported this week, the National Interagency Fire Center says nearly 20,000 wildfires have burned nationwide, charring more than 800,000 acres — above the 10-year average. It said projects through July look “ominous.”

Worries about wildfires have increased — but so have worries about housing. Concern about having enough housing — especially the affordable kind — has increased in the last few years, given rising housing costs and the fact that cost-of-living increases have not kept pace with recent inflation.

The Daily Camera, a newspaper in Boulder, Colorado, reported that a local effort to create more affordability and to reduce urban sprawl “could conflict with efforts to reduce risk from wildfires, such as the devastating Dec. 30 Marshall Fire that destroyed 580 homes in Louisville alone.”

Louisville City Manager Jeff Durbin told the Daily Camera that the city isn’t taking a regulatory approach, but rather hopes to encourage residents to choose fire-resistant materials when building, perhaps with incentives to cover the cost between traditional and fire-resistant materials.

Another potential danger to housing near wildfires is a tendency for the electrical grid to fail when storms and wildfires rage, as Sofia Jeremias reported for the Deseret News. “Humanity may have figured out how to build a functional jetpack, created phones that comprehend human voices, and learned how to edit genes, but maintaining the power grid in the face of increasingly extreme weather events remains an unsolved problem,” she wrote.

SFGate reported that the Santee City Council greenlit the plan to build 3,000 new homes in the hills northeast of San Diego.

But Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal ruled that the developers need to do more to show they’ve planned for successfully evacuating the housing should wildfires come close. Bacal said the approvals for the project would have to be overturned, the article noted.

That doesn’t mean the project is dead. Those responsible for the project have vowed to update the applications to address the judge’s concerns, taking into account increasingly harsh wildfires.