Building on the edge of flames

Today, Carson and Rider wrap up their week with a look at housing development in fire-prone areas. Previously, they debated the role of the federal government in responding to fires, the propriety of public fire insurance, the difference between local and federal responses in San Diego, and the city's lack of preparedness.

Don't get your hopes upBy Richard Carson

By now it should be clear to all that Southern California is prone to wildfires. Experts predict climate conditions that help foster these fires will only worsen in the future. While local governments do not have control over climate conditions, they do have substantial influence over: (1) how many homes get built on the urban/wildland interface, where fire risks are highest; (2) the building codes for the houses that get built; and (3) policies and programs aimed at reducing the accumulation of various types of vegetation and trees that fuel the fires.

In the old days of San Diego's back-country ranches there was no expectation that the fire department would come and put out the flames. The small number of houses in the back country had large, cleared areas to protect them, and their presence there had no influence on the frequency of nearby fires nor on the allocation of resources in the middle of fighting a large-scale fire. So the government had little interest in what happened in the back country. This, however, is no longer the case.

The number of houses in and along the urban/wildland interface has dramatically increased, and most of them no longer have defensible perimeters. There is a clear expectation that firefighters should and will try to save their homes. In both the 2003 and 2007 fires in San Diego County considerable effort was diverted away from trying to prevent the fire from hitting heavily populated urban areas, into protecting these fire-zone frontier homes. Smaller fires in the back country that would help to burn off the vegetation that fuels big fires during fall Santa Ana conditions are routinely put out because they threaten property.

I don't think there is any way to go back to the old days. That leaves the government with two realistic options to effectively deal with the situation: (a) largely banning extensive new development along the urban/wildland interface, or (b) requiring new development in these areas to pay the full cost imposed on the government and existing residents. We are unlikely to see either event happen.

Real estate developers, to whom most San Diego politicians are beholden, have too great an interest in outward expansion. Their profits, in most instances, are maximized by building high-density homes and paying as little as they can in the form of impact fees.

An interesting concept is the shelter-in-place building code, which has been implemented in five new housing developments in the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District. The concept — of seeking refuge in your own protected home rather than clogging up evacuation routes — is still largely untested. A glance at the Witch Creek fire map suggests that these housing developments were among the hundreds of near-misses rather than a clear successful test of the theory. (It is also worth noting these residents were indeed evacuated along with everyone else.)

At some level I am surprised that this building code has received so much press attention, since it is unlikely to ever be applied on a large scale. It requires huge lot sizes and almost guarantees that a house will cost in the $1 million-plus range. If the concept works, it would reduce some, but not all, of the negative effects associated with building new homes in high-risk areas. Going this direction, though, would never satisfy developers, since it would substantially reduce the number of homes that can be profitably built and hence the value of the land they hope to get zoned to higher density.

Unfortunately, I expect to see San Diego County continue to approve fairly brisk development along the urban/wildland interface. No doubt there will be a charade of new regulations in response to the 2007 fires, but there will be no public admission of the increased wildfire risk they are knowingly helping to fuel.

Richard Carson is an environmental and natural resource economist at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies natural disasters, among other things.

Let people, not sprinklers, fight the fireBy Richard Rider
Professor Carson,

One problem I have with the inevitable calls for restricting further "building out" because of fire danger is that usually this idea is advanced by environmentalists who don't want further development at all. After all, these proponents have THEIR homes (usually in trendy suburban enclaves), so -- as far as they are concerned -- no further building outside the downtown area is either necessary or desired. For them, the brush fire danger is just a, uh, smokescreen they use to advance their land-use agenda.

But most families with children don't want to live in the crowded urban environment so cherished by environmentalists -- cherished for others to live in. "Greedy developers" are simply building what people want -- free-standing houses away from the city. In addition, the further away one gets from a city, the less expensive is the land; a crucial factor for middle-class families seeking homes.

Professor, I agree with you that the effort to ban such housing will not succeed. Thank goodness!

The "shelter in place" concept can work -- especially if people are given the leeway to stay and defend their homes. Indeed, in the October fires, not a single home was lost in the five "shelter in place" subdivisions in the fire-swept Rancho Santa Fe Fire district.

However, this preventative strategy does not require the degree of fire protection the full concept encourages. Some of these requirements drive up the cost of houses too high for 90% of the citizens.

For instance, the mandatory internal sprinkler system does little to stop an exterior blaze. Such fires, when they doom an inadequately protected home, get into the attic, where they can't be stopped by internal sprinklers.

One can judge the value of such sprinklers by checking how much one's homeowner's insurance would go down if a sprinkler system was installed in your existing abode. This is an objective, first-rate way to gauge the reduction in fire risk.

I checked my home in fire-prone Scripps Ranch, where more than 300 homes burned down in the 2003 Cedar fire. I found that my $800 homeowner's structure/contents policy would drop a paltry $10 a year if I installed sprinklers (compared to more than $200 a year for an alarm system). A new home's sprinkler system would cost at least $10,000, a poor investment return. Plus, the danger from leaks or accidental sprinkler activation makes these devices far less desirable for homes than is being suggested.

Professor, rather than requiring huge, expensive home lots as you suggest, what is really necessary is a deep, fire-resistant border, keeping the chaparral away from the houses. That way, numerous fire-resistant houses can be built rather close together, surrounded by an open-space fire break. Homes catch fire from embers from brush fires -- not from neighboring, fire-resistant houses. Indeed, properly laid out new housing tracts can actually serve as a fire break against the roaring flames.

The bottom line is that we need new ways to fight fires. We need more homeowners trained and allowed to defend their residences. We need a large, well-trained reserve civilian firefighting cadre. We need to promptly fight such big fires with the thousands of military personnel in our area, both in the air and on the ground.

Brush fires are part of California. They aren't going away. Yet, there are solutions -- but only if we choose to implement them.

Richard Rider is chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters, a grass-roots taxpayer organization. A businessman and retired Navy Reserve commander, Rider has written dozens of ballot arguments against raising taxes and issuing municipal bonds.

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