California, USA — Even as firefighters battled last week against the raginginfernos encircling communities from the mountains to the sea, officials andexperts were debating whether stronger local regulations would have averted thedisaster.
While analyses after previous wildfires have led to construction of morefire-resistant homes, few communities have limited or prohibited development inhigh fire-risk areas.
New subdivisions continue to sprout near wind-blown canyons, while dreamhouses spring up in the brush-covered hills above Malibu and the forests of theSan Bernardino Mountains.
“How much building are we going to allow to be done up againsttinder-dry hillsides?” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said after touringfire-blackened communities with President George W. Bush. “Malibu has hadfire after fire, and I think thought needs to be given to that.”
While Feinstein was careful to add that fire victims should be allowed torebuild, she advocates restricting development in some locations.
At the very least, she said, tougher requirements should be imposed for broadfire buffers, and community wildfire plans in new subdivisions should beapproved.
Building in fire zones
The foothills abutting the Santa Susana Mountains, Hollywood Hills and theSanta Monica Mountains all are considered high fire-hazard zones.
Yet Los Angeles city and county officials said they allow construction inthese fire-prone areas unless the project lacks water or sufficient access to aroad large enough to accommodate a firetruck.
“We can’t prohibit development unless we’re prepared to buy property,”Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.
However, the county has some control over the types of projects that arebuilt in high fire-risk areas, through hillside development restrictions andfire-safety requirements.
“There’s a legitimate issue in how much development you want to allow infire-danger areas. You haven’t had a major subdivision go up in the Santa MonicaMountains for at least 13 years,” Yaroslavsky said.
“And you will never see that kind of development in the Santa MonicaMountains again.”
For example, the county Fire Department recently downscaled a 90-homesubdivision proposed for the brush-covered hillsides in the West San FernandoValley to just 25 homes because of concerns about firetruck access.
And the Los Angeles Fire Department finds itself trying to balance propertyrights with rampant development in the steep, narrow streets of the HollywoodHills.
“People have a right to build. You see these lots that people were neverable to build on, and technology has allowed us to build on them. That’s thescary thing,” said Craig Fry, the assistant chief of fire prevention.
“When we deny permits, we end up in court sometimes.”
New projects must show they have adequate water pressure and room forfiretrucks. But they share the streets with older homes built before new,tougher fire restrictions.
“It’s a nightmare. There are times when firefighters have to get off therig, lift a car and move it out of the way of firetrucks,” said Fry, who isdeveloping a video for hillside residents on how to deal with wildfires.
This year, Los Angeles enacted a ban on street parking during red-flag days,when there is heightened fire risk.
Still, observers worry that homes are being built in increasingly remotelocations, thereby raising the cost and risk of protecting those homes andresidents from wildfires.
“Never have I seen the county say, `No, you can’t put the house therebecause it’s going to put our firefighters at risk.’ If they have the property,they have those rights, and they can build,” said Travis Longcore, sciencedirector at The Urban Wildlands and a member of Los Angeles County’senvironmental review board.
“You’re left with having to approve houses that are in areas that aredangerous. It has burned before – and it will burn again.”
For residents of San Bernardino County, the Slide and Grass fires that brokeout a week ago near Running Springs and Lake Arrowhead were reminiscent of theOld Fire four years earlier.
After that blaze – which killed six people, burned more than 91,000 acres anddestroyed nearly 1,000 homes – a community group launched an effort to help firevictims who sought to rebuild minimize future hazards.
“You don’t see the wooden shake roofs being put on anymore,” saidDave Stuart, who lives in Arrowhead Woods and is executive director ofRebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives.
“But we also need to make sure people are not bringing foreign plants uphere that don’t belong here, and that they don’t try to put in rolling lawnsthat take up all the water.”
Richard Minnich, a fire ecologist and professor of earth science at UCRiverside, suggested local governments can help minimize wildfire destruction bymandating brush clearance around private property and thinning forests andgrasslands.
And new development in wildland areas doesn’t necessarily have to be haltedbut it can be modified, said Ted Heych, president of the board for the LakeArrowhead Community Services District.
He proposes burying the power lines, which can spark brush fires when downedby high winds.
“We can’t stop the winds, but we can stop power lines from swinging backand forth,” Heych said. “They will have to rebuild those homes andrebuild those lines anyway, so why not bury them? We don’t think twice aboutburying gas and water lines.”
The California Building Standards Commission last month approved tough newstandards for building in fire zones.
And Los Angeles already requires strict tile or cement shake roofs, a thickcoat of stucco able to withstand an hour of fire and a wide swath cleared ofbrush and filled with fire-resistant plants.
“When you deal with building in the wildland-urban interface, it isgoing to be more hazardous than in the urban areas,” said Scott Poster, LosAngeles County’s deputy chief of fire prevention.
“But if they do everything they are supposed to do, following thebuilding codes, it’s pretty safe. We’ve taken a lot of time to make sure allthose homes they’re building are safe.”