Washington, USA — As a rule, rural property owners make money by building as many homes as possible on their land. The construction industry is not always keen on costly new fire-prevention building codes. And the state and local governments, according to one report, can actually encourage the building of expensive homes in fire-prone areas.
These realities can translate into economic and political obstacles for cities and counties that want to write building codes that might help prevent the sort of widespread damages caused by last month’s wildfires.
Today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will assemble state and local officials to discuss building and zoning policies that can help or hurt fire-prevention efforts. Feinstein hopes to use federal money to persuade these officials to adopt national standards for new building in fire-prone areas and even for retrofitting of existing homes.
Her task won’t be easy.
This is probably one of the touchiest areas of state government, said Bill Craven, the top staffer on the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife. How does the state create policies that can be implemented at the local level, while honoring this long tradition of local governments being in charge of land-use decisions?
A 2004 study by the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies concluded that local and state governments actually are encouraging the construction of homes in fire-prone areas by tapping taxpayers to pay for brush suppression and firefighting.
The study also found that government agencies have responded slowly in adapting to wildfire threats and that modern improvements in building design have been opposed by developers as too costly. The report also says a multitude of city and county governments and special districts have been incapable of dealing with the widespread regional impact of foothill development, in part because they lack real power for coordinated enforcement.
Landowners in rural areas prone to fires balk at zoning restrictions that might limit the numbers of houses that can be built on their properties, said Scott Peters, president of the San Diego City Council.
People really want to make more money by developing their land and putting a lot of housing out there, Peters said. It’s been very difficult for us to find ways to limit that development in a way that is palatable to landowners.
Feinstein is clearly hoping that financial incentives included in her new legislation might do the trick. Hypothetically, cities and counties would adopt a national code to get extra federal money for training firefighters and city planners, or for paying inspectors as long as they impose consequences, such as fines, if the standards are not met.
The California Building Standards Commission says the state has the most stringent statewide fire-safety standards in the country. The state agency refers to a 12-year-old statute that requires houses in fire-prone areas to have either roofs made of clay or cement or wood shake roofs that are pressure-treated with fire-resistant chemicals. The standards also require new venting that makes it harder for burning embers to get into concealed roofs or ceiling areas.
Feinstein’s hearing will rely partly on a Natural Resources Defense Council study in September of about 50 homes in Love Creek in the Calaveras County Sierra foothills. The study found that none of the homes was safe from fire because they lacked eave enclosures that prevent heat from collecting and fires from starting; fire-resistant roofs or fire-resistant coating on wood shake roofs; fire-resistant exterior siding and solid core doors; or double-paned windows or window covers that could prevent fire heat from breaking windows and getting inside the house.
The study estimated it would cost about $2,510 per home to make each structure conform.
Bill McKammen, former president of the California Fire Chiefs Association, is skeptical that local officials can muster the political will necessary to require stricter standards.
There are reports as far back as 1966 that talk about the issues we’re talking about today, McKammen said. Local jurisdictions have tried to enact stricter building code standards, but those requirements have not been implemented. It’s more expensive to build that way, and the development community has been opposed.
Bob Raymer, technical director for the California Building Industry Association, said the more than 7,000 members of his group generally support new building standards to prevent structures from catching fire, as long as they make sense. One proposal that his industry fought which the state’s fire-prevention community promoted was indoor sprinklers in homes. Raymer said indoor sprinklers don’t help much, and are very expensive.
We’ll be very interested in what she’s requiring, and why, Raymer said. If you can show it’s clearly cost-effective to the home buyer, we’re usually supportive.