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Solimar Research

Land Use Planning Faces A Burning Question

Oct 23, 2007
Southern California is in flames again it's gotten to the point where I can't even remember which fire the soot on my car is coming from and makes me wonder once again why we've given up on land use planning as a way to reduce fire risk in such a fire-prone region.

As I write this, the current conflagration has cost more than 1,000 homes and forced the evacuation of more than a half-million people. Will Californians come out of this catastrophic event thinking that we need to use land use planning to avoid fire-prone areas?

I doubt it, no matter how much devastation we see on television, because over the past few years we've moved in the opposite direction on fires. We're not trying to avoid hazardous areas. We're trying to fireproof ourselves instead.

The turning point came during the devastating fires in 2003, when some subdivisions notably Stevenson Ranch near Santa Clarita made it through the fires with little damage because of buffers and other mitigation measures. As our columnist Stephen Svete noted shortly afterward, most of the post-mortems focused on building codes, not planning. Blue-ribbon commissions emphasized the importance of building codes and San Diego finally got around to banning wood roofs.

As for as planning, most everybody was fatalistic. "A moratorium," San Bernardino County Supervisor Patti Aguiar told the Riverside Press-Enterprise, "probably made sense a long time ago, if you didn't want anybody up there. But now, everybody's already up there. It's pretty darn late."

If there's one, um, blazing bright spot in all this, it's Riverside County. Thanks partly to new state fire hazard maps, Riverside is taking fire risk seriously and considering the possibility of creating a fire hazard zone similar to the 100-year floodplain that would not permit development.

So not everybody has given up. And that's a good thing. Because surely if there's one thing that land use planning is well-suited for, it's mapping out hazards and helping to avoid them.

California has, as they say, a "fire-driven ecology". To me, that means soot on my car is OK. But subdivisions in the forest don't make much sense.

- Bill Fulton