Do homes trump sensitive habitat in fire areas?

Do homes trump sensitive habitat in fire areas?

21 March 2008

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California, USA — In the continuing battle of man versus nature, state lawmakers are debating a bill that would allow sensitive habitats to be cleared to protect homes from wildfires like those that swept last fall across Southern California.

The bill, set for its first committee hearing this month, calls for cutting red tape to allow property owners to clear or thin brush 300 feet – the length of a football field – around structures in high-fire-danger areas such as the canyons of Malibu and Santa Clarita.

State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, whose eastern San Diego County district was devastated in last year’s firestorms, said local orders to clear brush would supersede state concerns for habitats where environmental issues already had been addressed in the development process.

“Every home that burned four years ago was in my district and most damage last fall – we lost about 1,200 homes – was in my district,” said Hollingsworth, R-Temecula.

“We’d heard there was a problem for some residents who tried to clear brush but were hampered by state permits and we also heard reports from Los Angeles County there was concern that creating defensible space was slowed because of environmental reviews. The bureaucratic red tape was preventing brush clearance efforts.”

In Los Angeles County, a newly formed group representing fire departments, county and city governments, the state parks system, the U.S. Forest Service and research agencies is studying Hollingsworth’s Senate Bill1618 as it looks at ways to safeguard homes, said Susan Nissman, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s deputy in the Calabasas-Malibu area.

The group also will address a series of ideas ranging from fire-safe construction to moving underground the power lines that can snap in high wind and spark brush fires, she said.

But the challenge is daunting as long as development is allowed in high-risk areas.

“No public agency is going to be able to reduce the level of risk to zero,” said committee member Ron Schafer, district superintendent of the California State Parks Department’s Angeles District.

“You live by the coast – every once in a while you get a high tide that’s going to put some water in your family room. It’s the same thing in these mountains. They have burned since before human beings were here.”

About 85 homes in the county were destroyed in October and November when winds whipped up flames from the high desert to the coast.

Shafer’s district includes Malibu Creek State Park, a wilderness area popular among hikers. Stately homes come close to the park grounds, so if Hollingsworth’s legislation is approved, vegetation on the public land could be uprooted because it would fall within the 300-foot radius.

“What ends up happening is that we work with the property owner; we do a certain amount of fuel modification on our property adjacent to private residences,” Shafer said.

This in a nature park that boasts one of the five Mediterranean ecosystems in the world – “an ecological hot spot,” Shafer said.

While SB1618 allows for brush clearance around developments that underwent environmental review before they were built, Shafer said agencies such as his often recommend conservation mitigations in those reports, but they aren’t necessarily approved.

“We always comment on particular developments – if it needs to be set back X number feet to provide for adequate fuel modification,” he said. “Whether the responsible agency takes that into consideration is another question.”

The current brush-clearance standard in Los Angeles County is up to 200 feet in fire-prone areas, said Scott Poster, deputy chief for prevention services for the county Fire Department.

But in wind-driven fires, blowing embers from more than a mile away can ignite a home.

“Three hundred feet – that may not be the answer because 500 feet of brush clearance can’t stop an ember from lighting a house on fire,” Shafer said.

David Hogan, conservation manager for the private Center for Biological Diversity, called the legislation “nothing more than hysteria masquerading as law.”

“The real problem is allowing new development in high-risk areas,” Hogan said. “One of the main reasons homes are lost is they’re built in inappropriate areas. It puts more residents and firefighters at risk.

“Secondly, power lines are a leading cause of wildfire. So where is the legislation addressing these issues?”


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