Gene Zimmerman: Fire risk needs to be factored into zoning

Gene Zimmerman: Fire risk needs to be factored into zoning

 10 February 2008

published by

USA — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to bolster the state’s firefighting efforts by charging property owners an insurance fee is like fighting wildfire with a garden hose – it may help, but it won’t put out the fire.

There is no question that California needs to reform how we pay for wildfire suppression. The cost of protecting homes near fire-prone wildlands has spiraled out of control throughout the West. It’s time to look differently at wildfires that occur where forests and urban areas merge, and consider new ways to manage the ever-present risk.

Suppression costs of California’s fires have more than doubled in the last decade to more than $1 billion every year. The indirect costs of these fires total many more billions – often affecting individuals, communities and businesses far removed from the fires. And even with the best efforts of the fire agencies, there continues to be tragic losses.

Now the governor is asking all property owners to pay a little more to support the state’s fire department. That’s reasonable, but only if those folks who choose to live in high-risk areas pay the real costs of the fire protection they receive. As new development pushes deeper into wildlands, we must take into consideration planning and zoning decisions made by local governments and make sure those governments shoulder their fair share of responsibility for keeping their citizens safe.

Cities and counties continue to approve an unprecedented amount of development where wildland and urban areas merge. And when the next mega-fire strikes, heroic efforts will again be expected of firefighters. Can we, in good conscience, continue to ask our firefighters to defend homes built in increasingly dangerous areas?

With a few exceptions, federal and state governments assume most costs to fight wildfires, which actually creates an incentive for local governments to approve homes in fire-prone wildlands. By incorporating wildfire risk into land-use planning, counties need to play a critical role in guiding new construction away from risky areas.

While some jurisdictions have aggressive building codes and enforcement, others are less stringent. Strengthening the laws related to where houses can be built, coupled with aggressive enforcement, would reduce costs and help protect homes and lives.

Fortunately, California’s recent building code revisions on “ember-safe construction” are a good start, but more needs to be done.

A few Southern California counties have demonstrated that homes built to strict fire safe codes, incorporating substantial defensible space, can often withstand intense fires. But the bigger question remains; should we even be building – and rebuilding – in these high-risk places?

We cannot continue the current planning processes that allow local governments to permit building near rugged, hard to access areas and then not be responsible for the higher firefighting costs.

We can’t begin to tackle the wildfire problem until we alleviate the factors that are making it worse. We will only get out of this hole if we quit digging.

Fire is a natural occurrence on our arid landscape and has been for thousands of years. The dilemma is how we plan – or fail to plan – to mitigate risks to people and property.

We need to start with where we decide to build new homes and follow the same principle as buying a home – location, location, location. We need to make sure that development incorporates enough clearance between homes and the natural fire-prone vegetation, which a wildland fire can and will burn.

Californians who get the direct benefit of state and federal fire protection need to pay their fair share and not expect other property owners to subsidize their fire protection.

And finally, we need to make local governments financially accountable for their zoning and planning decisions.

The governor’s proposal is a starting point for discussion, but we need to make sure that those who benefit the most from the state’s services are the ones who will pay the lion’s share of the cost. It’s time for our leaders to provide some leadership on this issue.

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