USA — By Lou Paulson President of California Professional Firefighters and Bob Wolf President of CDF Firefighters
Earlier this year, as California suffered through its third disastrous Fire of the Century in the past half-decade, it was hard for firefighters not to feel a bit fatalistic about the task before them. In earlier times, it was easier to corral massive wildland fires. They often broke out in remote areas, out where few, if any people lived.
Unfortunately, the fires of 2008 are not those of 1908, or even 1998. The explosion of development has turned some of our wildlands into suburbs, attaching a huge financial risk every time the Santa Ana winds blow in Southern California.
Dave Jones feels the heat. Hes written a bill to make it more difficult for fires to take property and lives. His Assembly Bill 2447 offers a simple, yet powerful prescription: Understand the risks before we start building in areas of high fire risk.
Can anyone question the need for the bill?
The numbers are daunting. Just seven fires since September of 2006 have burned approximately 1,069,521 acres. The damages are into the hundreds of millions of dollars. On a single day this past summer, there were more than 2,000 individual fires burning throughout the state and we werent even in high season for wildland fires.
And, in spite of the risk, we keep building. Just a rough estimate suggests that there are already more than one million homes in the once distant State Responsibility Areas (SRA) and a quarter of those have no fire protection. As firefighters, we can tell you that thats not just unwise — its a life-and-death issue, for us and for you.
The focal point of Assemblyman Joness bill is simple. Before any new construction is authorized in areas of high fire risk, there must be a declaration that the area has adequate fire protection. This includes such basics as multiple access roads for fire response vehicles, access to water to put out the fires, and enough firefighters and fire response vehicles in the area to respond.
It is not too much to ask agencies to insure that the roads arent too steep fore vehicles to get in and get out. Its not too much to ask that there be enough water handy. And its certainly not too much for these new homeowners to expect that theres a fire station be close at hand when families are living in these new developments.
AB 2447 isnt about adding bureaucracy. Nobody is saying that building should stop certainly not in these times. But when catastrophic wildland fires can wipe out a local economy as they devastate lives, the cost of winking away the risk is just too steep. The people moving into these new homes deserve to know whos going to answer the alarm in an emergency. The taxpayers who pay the freight deserve the same assurances an investor or insurer would receive that we are not allowing subdivisions to be purposefully built in harms way.
Weve learned a lot from the extraordinary fires of the past six years. The Legislature has responded by mandating defensible space area around homes, saying that a property must be cleared to deny an oncoming fire the fuels needed to escalate the flames. Governments have also taken steps to use more non-igniting firesafe materials. The quickly burning wooden roofs of yesteryear are being replaced with tile and metal and these building materials will clearly make it more difficult for fires to take off.
But as important as these steps are, theres no such thing as a fire-proof subdivision. If we cant get to your home in time, its going to burn up. We dont want it to happen with you in it.
At the end of day we know California is going to burn. It only makes sense to understand how we are going to put those fires out. Assemblyman Joness bill just says that we remove the mystery of how disaster will be averted. Asking the What do we need? questions on the front end makes a whole lot more sense than asking the What if? questions in the midst of smoldering ruins.