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Fire Destruction Demonstrates Differences In Local Codes

Stephen Svete on
Feb 1, 2004

Now that the smoke has cleared from last fall’s Southern California firestorms, one might assume that fire protection experts and elected leaders are busy working on methods to ensure that developments in fire hazard areas are better protected. That assumption, however, is only partly true.

A Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission has completed a series of symposia sharing what was learned in the fire zone. Local governments from San Bernardino County to the City of San Diego are tinkering with building and fire ordinances. But the electorate’s reluctance to foot the bill for more facilities and services, and opposition from several fronts to fire-safe building and development regulations, have stymied real change.

For example, the San Diego City Council during a January hearing was willing only to outlaw new wood roofs — a move that many fire-prone jurisdictions made during the 1970s and 1980s. The council punted on other proposals, including phasing out all wood roofs over 25 years, prohibiting wood fences, decks and garage doors in high hazard areas, and requiring chimney spark arrestors.

Perhaps San Diego’s leaders and its reluctant citizens should visit Ventura County.

The fires of October and November 2003 were the worst in California history. About three-quarter of a million acres burned in an arc surrounding the Los Angeles-San Diego megalopolis, transcribing an area from western Ventura County to the Mexican border. The fires killed 22 people, and 16 more people died in subsequent mudslides. Nearly 3,600 homes were destroyed – most of them in what is called the "urban-wildland interface."

The data show that San Diego County was hardest hit while Ventura County avoided a calamity. Three planning factors appear to be responsible for the difference. Ventura County has:

• A centralized fire protection agency function

• Strongly-enforced building and fire codes that affect the urban-wildland interface

• An anti-sprawl growth policy that reinforces code effectiveness.

Fires destroyed 24 homes and damaged 14 more — "the largest property loss we’ve ever had locally," Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said. In contrast, the City of San Diego alone lost more 300 homes. But these numbers do not mean Ventura County did not face a huge conflagration. The fall 2003 fires consumed 172,195 acres in Ventura County – a full 22% of the land area burned by the complex of fires — and advanced right to the edge of five cities and several unincorporated communities. Yet the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that less than 1% of disaster assistance requests have come from Ventura County residents.

Bill Peters, a California Department of Forestry spokesman, said Ventura County’s tough brush clearance program made the difference. Whereas San Bernardino and San Diego counties require structures in fire hazard areas be separated by a 30-foot non-flammable buffer area — a standard that has been virtually ignored in the forested mountain resort communities — Ventura County requires 100 feet of buffer. Since 1967, Ventura County has hired contractors to clear properties that are out of compliance and then billed the owners, tacking on an administrative fee. The county cleaned up several hundred properties annually during the program’s early years; the total now is down to an average of 30 per year.

Ventura County’s brush clearance ordinance is coupled with strong building code requirements in unincorporated areas. Those codes require non-flammable roofing, and boxed and sprinkled eaves. Finally, the whole program is managed by the Ventura County Fire Department, working in concert with the county’s planning and building functions. Because Ventura County’s "Guidelines for Orderly Development" have long required that urban development be directed into one of the county’s 10 incorporated cities, and because six of those cities contract with the county for fire protection, the county ends up needing to protect mainly rural areas and can coordinate with other agencies efficiently.

The other side of the fire safety planning coin is San Diego County, which suffered the greatest amount of deaths and property loss in October and November. San Diegans do not fund a county fire department. Instead, cities and the state protect the urban-wildland zone. The City of San Diego, for example, is jurisdictionally responsible for fire protection of the Scripps Ranch neighborhood, where lives and more than 300 homes were lost.

In the immediate aftermath, officials across San Diego County scrambled to tighten building standards and fund better fire protection. But momentum for reform faded before the embers were cool. In late January, the San Diego City Council backed away from code amendments that would result in an average $20,000 increase in cost to current fire victims, a cost that insurance policies would not generally cover.

In December, the Escondido City Council, representing a citizenry that experienced forced evacuations less than two months earlier, shelved a $40 million bond issue for fire stations and a fire administration center. A poll had indicated there was no support for the bond. Two weeks earlier, a San Diego County supervisor ditched his plan to ask voters for the funding of a fleet of fire helicopters, also citing a lack of voter support.

While the fires have generated a great deal of official sole searching and an impressive amount of post-disaster analysis, there is little reason to believe the disaster will not be repeated. Mustering political fortitude apparently is just as difficult stopping a firestorm from consuming a poorly planned subdivision.

Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.

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