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2003 Fires Influence Building Standards, But Not Planning

Paul Shigley on
Nov 1, 2004

One year ago, a series of wildfires wrought an unprecedented level of destruction in Southern California, and many experts believe that fires of similar magnitude could strike again. In the year since the fires, government agencies have approved a variety of measures in hopes of reducing damage by future fires, but it does not appear that broad changes in land use planning are part of those fire-safe measures.

The fires sparked the formation of numerous state, regional and local task forces and commissions, many of which have issued detailed reports and recommendations since firefighters doused the last hot spots in November 2003. For the most part, the follow-up reports have addressed firefighting and other emergency services. Building standards received some attention. Recommended changes to large-scale building patterns or planning practices, however, have not been part of the mix.

At least two factors appear to be forcing planners into the background. First, there is no consensus on what steps planners could take. And, maybe more importantly, the marketplace is unlikely to accept drastic changes in how people build in rugged, scenic — and, yes, fire-prone — areas.

The lack of a consensus might be a nod to pragmatism. Even the most drastic proposals — such as building moratoriums in mountainous areas clogged with unhealthy trees — meet with shrugs from firefighters. The ambivalence stems from the fact that so many dangerous areas are already developed. For example, the Lake Arrowhead area in San Bernardino County — where a huge tree die-off, a century of fire suppression and ongoing drought have created wickedly dangerous conditions — already has about 90,000 residents, not counting all of the people who own second homes there. Firefighters are focused on protecting people and structures that are already in harms way.

“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.”

Although he views the situation a bit differently University of California, Riverside, earth sciences Professor Tom Scott agreed that Aguiar has a point. “If you already have five houses on a street, it won’t significantly alter the land use if you build two more houses,” Scott said.

Then there are the considerations of civil rights and the public marketplace. A long-term moratorium could raise property rights issues. Drastic changes in planning and zoning — such as requiring very large lot sizes to limit building density, or mandating clustered development inside a wide fire break — would be difficult to sell to property owners and the general public.

“Land values didn’t go down at Lake Arrowhead, even though almost the whole town burned down last year,” pointed out Richard Minnich, also a professor in UCR’s earth sciences department. “People don’t have long memories. They want to live in the woods with the birds and the bees.”

Still, the marketplace itself might force some changes, and that is because insurers are growing wary of California’s fire hazard. Plus, some policymakers are questioning whether homeowners who live outside of fire hazard zones should continue to subsidize insurance rates for people who live in what is known as the “urban-wildland interface.”

“If we start getting these catastrophic fires on a routine basis,” said Scott, “maybe people won’t be able to build in some of these places because they won’t be able to get insurance.”

New Building Standards

The magnitude of the 2003 fires in Southern California remains difficult to grasp. On October 21, 2003, the first fire ignited, beginning two weeks worth of 14 fires in San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Riverside counties. By the time firefighters had all of the blazes contained on November 4, the fires had killed 24 people and injured 246 others, destroyed 3,631 homes and scorched 1,150 square miles of forest, chaparral and grassland. Less than two months later, floods and mudslides in fire-ravaged Waterman Canyon north of the City of San Bernardino killed 16 people.

Despite the death and devastation, there were slivers of hope. Ventura and Los Angeles counties combined counted the lost homes in the dozens — not in the hundreds — even though more than 200,000 acres burned. Limits on “rural sprawl,” and strict building and brush clearance standards were credited for keeping most structures safe (seeCP&DR Trends, February 2004). Even San Diego County, which suffered about two-thirds of the property damage, saw much greater survivability of homes built after the county Board of Supervisors adopted tougher building standards in 1997.

In the past year, building codes have continued to get stricter in many jurisdictions that were hit or threatened by the firestorms.

“A lot of conversation has taken place,” said Kevin Crawford, fire chief in the City of Carlsbad and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. “We have the ear in a way that we never had it before.”

San Diego County, for example, upgraded roofing requirements, outlawed siding made of wood or other easily flammable material, mandated dual-glazed windows, and set new standards for gutters and exterior doors. In high-fire-risk areas, the county prohibited new wooden fences or patio covers. The City of San Diego, which had refused to ban wood shake roofs, took that step earlier this year.

San Bernardino County has gone further. Earlier this year, the county amended its general plan fire hazard overlay maps and modified the development code.

“I think we’ve gone a long way in beefing up our development requirements,’ said Michael Hays, director of San Bernardino County’s Land Use Services Department.

The general plan amendment placed hazardous areas into one of three categories. Fire safety area 1 covers the San Bernardino Mountains and valley foothills, while area 2 takes in the mountain-desert interface on the mountains’ north side. Area 3, the most dangerous zone, is the urban-wildland interface on the south side of the mountains adjacent to the City of San Bernardino. Last year, fire swept into the city in that area.

At the same time that it approved the general plan amendment, the county tightened the development code, including banning wood shake roofs. The most stringent requirements apply in area 3, where, for example, eaves must be enclosed by flame-retardant material. The county also limited development density in hilly areas and even prohibited all development on slopes of more than 30% in the foothills.

The county is keeping fire safety in mind while it is updating the general plan, Hays said. “I think we have made a good attempt at it already,” he added. “We will certainly give it a more refined look during the general plan update process. But, believe it not, there is opposition to some of this.”

Chief Crawford would believe it.

“There is still much debate about how far codes and ordinances need to go,” Crawford said. “There is still the battle between the fire services and the building industry, and with the planners and engineers.”

The Nature of Fire

Whether the code changes will make a big difference in the event of a catastrophic fire is unclear. Even UCR’s Minnich, a skeptic regarding local fire-safe regulations, said that it was only “dumb luck” that a fire swept into San Diego’s Scripps Ranch neighborhood last year, burning about 300 houses.
Instead, Minnich and others point to the need for different land and fire management strategies that involve dramatic reductions in the amount of “fuel” that comes in the form of dead trees and chaparral, overly dense forests and tall grasses. The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, which released a lengthy report this year, dealt at length with the problem of too much burnable material on both public and private lands.

“Until the removal of thousands of acres of dead bark beetle infested trees and sound forest stewardship is achieved, Southern California and other forested areas of the state will continue to have hazardous standing fuel just waiting to become the next conflagration,” the governor’s commission reported. “Fuel reduction and fuel modification programs are essential to reducing the potential threat of major WUI [wildland-urban interface] fires.”

Again, San Bernardino County might be a small step ahead of other jurisdictions. In 2002, the county began insisting that property owners remove dead trees and the county started placing liens on the real estate of recalcitrant landowners.

Of course, new land and fire management strategies are far easier to recommend than to implement. Upon the release of the governor’s commission report, Chairman William Campbell, a former Republican state senator from Hacienda Heights, said environmental regulations must be relaxed to allow large-scale fuel reductions. Otherwise, Campbell said, “these tragedies are certain to repeat.”

That recommendation drew a strong condemnation from environmentalists, who insisted that regulation does not prevent proper forest management.

Better land and fire management would involve thinning trees, letting low-intensity fires burn even during summer months, and using cattle to graze on grasslands near urban areas, Minnich suggested. But Minnich, who has studied wildfire extensively in the West and in Mexico, blames the conundrum on a deep-seated mindset that can be seen in the face of Smokey Bear. Fire is simply part of the landscape, he said. There is no such thing as “fire prevention,” only fire postponement, he urged.

“We have no more ability to control fires than we do any of the other natural occurrences — earthquakes, flood, tornadoes,” Minnich said. “It’s a ridiculous mindset.”

As has been proven many times, the recommendations of one commission — even one tasked by the governor himself — do not mean change is on the way. The recommendations of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission resulted in the passage of five bills during the recently completed legislation session. With little explanation, the governor vetoed four of the bills.

The bills that died on the governor’s desk would have required additional California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) staffing, more fire engines and helicopters, and better local fire district reporting to the state fire marshal. The bill that did survive, AB 3065 (Kehoe), might be the one of most interest to planners. It requires CDF to review the safety elements of city and county general plans beginning in 2010.

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