California developers want to build a city in the wildlands. It could all go up in flames

About an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles lies one of the last remaining pieces of the truly wild, wild west.

The 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch is dotted with centuries-old native oaks. Endangered mountain lions roam the grounds, and California condors soar above it. Rains paint the hills bright orange with poppies, and purple with lupine. But in the summer, and during drought years, the landscape dries to a shimmering gold. A small group of cowboys still run cattle here.

Soon all of it could go up in smoke, scientists and climate activists fear.

Related: ‘We just had to get home’: the Californians who rebuild despite the danger of wildfires

The Tejon Ranch Company, the publicly traded corporation that owns the land, wants to build 20,000 houses, as well as shopping centers, offices, gyms and restaurants along this frontier. The company first pitched the project, called Centennial, two decades ago as a solution to California’s housing crisis.

The development has been controversial from the start, but as California braces for an extreme wildfire season, debate over whether the project should go forward has taken on renewed urgency. Environmental groups are warning that in the age of western megafires, building along these windy, arid grasslands would put tens of thousands of people, as well as highly endangered plants and animals, in harm’s way.

“Centennial embodies this vision and lifestyle that just doesn’t fit in the 21st century,” said Nick Jensen, a botanist with the California Native Plant Society, who has been protesting against the development for years. The idea of taming the wildlands, of propagating it with picket-fenced homes was once integral to the American dream, he said. “But in the modern age, in the age of climate change and in the age of wildfires – it just doesn’t fit.”

The fight for Centennial

Tejon Ranch is the largest private landholding in California, spanning 422 sq miles. It’s bigger than the New York metro area, and nearly as big as the city of Los Angeles.

Jensen, who has spent a decade studying, and fighting to conserve this landscape, can’t help but get excited as he talks about it. As a graduate student, he discovered a previously unknown species of wildflower – the Tejon jewel flower – here.

The landscape is unlike any other in the world, constantly transmorphing over time and space. Rugged, rocky terrain gives way to rolling hills, which transition into dusty desert dotted with Joshua trees. Fourteen per cent of all California native plant species, sub-species and varieties grow within the ranch’s boundaries.

The property’s untamed valleys and jagged mountain peaks often serve as a backdrop for luxury car commercials and fashion shoots. Annie Leibovitz photographed Rihanna, crouched amid Tejon’s golden grasslands, for a Vogue magazine cover. The movie Seabiscuit was largely filmed on the ranch; so was Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams music video.

“I love this place,” said Jensen – who was banned from the premises after he began advocating against Centennial. “But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live here,” he said.

The Tejon Ranch Company pitched Centennial in 1999 as an opportunity for middle class families priced out of Los Angeles to buy their very own plot of paradise. Since then, Tejon developers have been trying to sell that vision.

Even after the company secured approval for two other developments on the ranch – a small suburb called Grapevine and a luxury retreat called Mountain Village, it worked for years to assuage concerns that Centennial would be built atop what the state’s fire agency describes as “high’ and “very high” fire hazard zones.

The company’s proposal assured that developers would employ the “most stringent available” measures for “fire mitigation”. Homes and offices would be built to survive fires. The city would include “three to four fire stations and a sheriff’s station” to respond to any blazes sparked within Centennial and in neighboring communities. And “careful consideration” would be given to clearing out fire-fueling brush in the area. Ultimately, the company argued, the development would also help neighboring communities, and “protect natural resources and areas of development”. The county’s fire chief, Daryl Osby, testified that he was “confident and comfortable” with the developer’s plans.

“Given California’s housing crisis, which is a crisis of availability, affordability, California needs to immediately and dramatically increase its supply of housing,” Barry Zoeller, a senior vice-president of Tejon Ranch Company, told the Guardian. “It will be a modern, cutting-edge master planned community, the type of development that has proven to be innovative, efficient, sustainable and fire resilient.”

Fire scientists, however, have always been skeptical.If it wasn’t so terrifying, it would be funny,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “I tip my hat to the developers. They have done a lot of work trying to figure out how to make that site as fire safe as they can,” he said. “But while new building practices have made houses more fire safe, they certainly have not made them fireproof.”

I love this place ... but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live here

Nick Jensen

Moreover, in recent years, global heating has triggered extended droughts and severe heatwaves that have desiccated the region, transforming it into a tinderbox. The development itself will inevitably cause fires, Miller said. In California, almost 95% of fires are started by people, according to the California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire). An overheated vehicle, a faulty electrical line, a carelessly discarded cigarette, or a lawnmower hitting a rock would be all it takes to start a catastrophic blaze. One spark catching on a blade of dry grass, “and that’s it”, Miller said. Grass fires burn especially fast, and high winds could carry the fires across Tejon’s 270,000 acres, into surrounding communities.

The idea that adding 60,000 humans to a landscape that’s already primed to burn wouldn’t increase wildfires, is “just magical thinking”, he said.

The growing threat of megafires has become increasingly difficult to ignore. The December 2018 Los Angeles county board of supervisors hearing on whether to grant Tejon the final approvals to build Centennial began with a prayer for the victims of the Woolsey fire, the blaze that had become the worst in county history just weeks earlier. Farther north, the Camp fire had killed 85 around the same time. “Heavenly father,” the local fire department’s chaplain implored, “may you bring healing to our hearts”.

A few minutes later, supporters of the development made their case. “A critical issue that has come up recently has been fire,” Greg Medeiros, an executive at Tejon, admitted at the hearing. But, he said, “this is an issue that has been thoroughly addressed.”

Concerns about the fire risk “ignore the conclusion of the LA county fire department, independent fire experts, and the board of supervisors that the Centennial fire management plan will protect Centennial and its residents from the risks of potential wildfire,” Zoeller said.

While new building practices have made houses more fire safe, they certainly have not made them fireproof

Char Miller

Criticism of the project was muted. In a 2008 agreement between environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Audubon California and Sierra Club, the ranch’s owners had agreed to protect 90% of the land from development, so long as those groups dropped their opposition to the company’s construction projects. In the years that ensued, Tejon also banned local activists and researchers like Jensen, who hadn’t signed on to the tit-for-tat agreement, from setting foot on the property.

“They made it so that getting Centennial approved was pretty much an inevitability,” said Jensen. “They tamped down opposing viewpoints.”

Katherine King, who lives near the ranch and testified against Centennial, had been a longtime member of the Sierra Club, but dropped out after the organization signed the agreement with Tejon. She was “annoyed,” she said, that the environmental groups had undercut their own advocacy against the project.

Representatives for the Sierra Club and the NRDC contacted by the Guardian said they were unable to discuss Centennial, due to the nature of the agreement. The groups have since sued the Tejon Ranch Company for breaching the contract by withholding funds needed to oversee conservation efforts on the ranch.

The company, which spends more than a quarter million dollars lobbying state legislators in any given year, had also spent months wooing local church leaders, business associations and charity groups.

Pastor William D Smart, Jr, who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of southern California, said the company approached him in 2018. “I just saw this development as one avenue for upwardly mobile, African Americans and Latinos who could no longer afford to live in the city,” he said. Of course, it would be better if more housing options were built within the city, where people worked, he said, but for decades, he’d seen nimbyism and racism defeat proposals to build affordable housing in LA. “White racism has pushed and is pushing black folks out,” he said. Already, some members of his congregation commute into the city from three or four hours away.

He heard the concerns from environmentalists – but he didn’t see them offering any better alternatives. “And I noted that on that day of the hearing, pretty much all the people opposing the development were white,” he recalled.

In the end, after two decades of debate, the project was approved, 4-1. A sole supervisor objected over fire concerns. But victory was short-lived for the Tejon Ranch Company.

‘There will always be risk’

This April, as a deepening drought threatened to bring on yet another destructive, deadly fire season, a judge in Los Angeles county halted the construction of Centennial, citing wildfire risk. The superior court judge Mitchell Beckloff ruled that while the environmental impact report that Tejon Ranch Co submitted with its proposal for Centennial adequately explained how the development would manage fires on site, its conclusion that the new construction wouldn’t impact fires in other areas was “problematic”.

For the environmental activists who had been fighting the project, “it was our first, big win,” said Jensen. Lawyers from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Native Plant Society – who have also challenged Centennial over the project’s environmental impact were emboldened. “I don’t think Tejon will be able to get out of this easily,” said JP Rose, an attorney with CBD.

The state and county’s environmental rules have tightened since the company first envisioned its development, Rose said. And after the state experienced its worst fire season on record last year, building in fire zones is now looking even less appealing to lawmakers and local residents, he added.

The company is not giving up. “We are working with the county,” said Zoeller, to address remaining concerns raised by the judge.

Smart said the judge’s ruling had made him think twice about the proposal. “If a judge thinks that the developers have not done their due diligence on the project, then they should go do their due diligence,” the pastor said. “I don’t want members of my congregation living up there, only to get caught in a fire.”

The climate crisis and the housing crisis are on a collision course in California. As disaster after fiery disaster in California demonstrated over the past few years, low and middle income families often have the hardest time recovering after a disaster. Families still liable for mortgages on burned homes can’t always afford to rent or buy elsewhere.

In March, the state’s then attorney general Xavier Becerra joined lawsuits challenging developments in rural San Diego county, including a 1,900-home gated community in the fire-prone Jamul Mountains. “On the heels of another dry winter, Californians are looking toward wildfire season with a familiar pit of dread in their stomachs,” said Becerra. “Local governments must address the wildfire risks associated with new developments.” In June, California’s insurance regulator endorsed sweeping policy changes to stop new construction in fire-prone areas. And state legislators are considering a bill that would make it much harder for local officials to approve development in “very high” fire severity zones.

For Ken Pimlott, the retired Cal Fire director who led the agency when fires leveled the neighborhood of Coffey Park in 2017 and Paradise in 2018, the question of whether Californians should continue to build in fire-prone wildlands is “complicated”, he said. “People want the right to be out on the land – and you can’t really take that away,” he said.

He and his wife live on a 71-acre plot of land along the wildlands of El Dorado county. But the locale isn’t for the faint of heart. “There will always be risk,” he said.

In looking at the plans for Centennial, he said the proposal to build new fire stations and clear the perimeter of the fire-fueling brush were a start. But he wondered whether the county could guarantee that those fire stations would remain staffed and funded well into the future, whether there would be enough water to supply the community and the local stations. Last year, when the state was in the throes of the pandemic and one of the worst fire seasons on record, fire crews were stretched thin – and competing for equipment and aircraft as they battled simultaneous mega blazes.

“Our crews will always do everything they can to protect our communities, always protect the public,” Pimlott said. “But the problem is outpacing everyone’s ability to try to stop these fires.”

At Tejon Ranch, drought sucked some of the plant life so dry this spring it had faded to a deathly gray. As Jensen drove through the region in late May, winds were so strong that they caused his Prius to drift off the highway, its windows vibrating with each large gust. About 15 minutes from where Centennial would be built, a 300-acre wildfire blackened mostly uninhabited fields of dried grass. Fire crews sprawled across the char, tamping out the dying embers.

No injuries were reported, and no structures were burned. “But right now, this is all just empty,” Jensen said. “Just imagine this if thousands of people were living here.”