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City, County Take Different Paths on Wood Roofs Issue

Times Staff Writer

After every major Southern California fire for the last quarter of a century, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn has sought a vote on a motion he first introduced in 1961, calling for a ban on wood-shingle roofs. And over and over again, he has been rebuffed by his colleagues amid heavy lobbying from the roofing industry.

So it both surprised and pleased Hahn on Wednesday when the Los Angeles City Council, by a resounding 12-1 vote, placed a tentative citywide ban on new wood-shingle roofs, which have been blamed for years for fueling fires.

“Good for them,” Hahn said Thursday.

By contrast, the county board, after years of debate, is only now close to extending to the flatlands a requirement that new or replacement wood roofs be treated with a fire retardant. Currently, the rule applies only to houses in the fire-prone hills.

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The contrast between the courses taken by the council and board on an often high-profile issue underscores a fundamental difference in the politics that drive Los Angeles’ most powerful governing bodies.

The City Council’s 15 members, with about 200,000 people in each district, have closer contact with constituencies. Many of the council members also have relatively high percentages of their constituencies living on fire-prone hillsides.

The five supervisors, however, represent sprawling districts, each with a population of about 1.7 million people. Simple mathematics dictate that residents of hillsides account for only a fraction of each of the supervisor’s constituency. Hence, the supervisors are under less political pressure to act on the issue.

“The supervisors are insulated from their constituents, and any small group of constituents has less effect on supervisors than a council person,” Councilman Marvin Braude said.

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At City Hall, council members were responding to warnings from city fire officials that even treated wood roofs can greatly increase fire losses.

The city has for several years required that wood roofs be treated with fire-retardant chemicals. Councilman Hal Bernson proposed that they be banned altogether from the fire-prone mountain areas of the city after 13 homes were destroyed and 23 others were damaged last fall in the so-called Porter Ranch fire in the San Fernando Valley. The fire occurred within his district.

But Braude, long a proponent of banning wood roofs altogether, surprised the industry by amending Bernson’s motion to include the entire city.

‘Safe Enough’

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“Roof fires can start in the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley or South Los Angeles,” he said. “If it is safe enough and necessary for the hillsides, it is safe enough for the rest of the city.”

Steve Afriat, a lobbyist for the Cedar Shingle and Shake Bureau, a roofing industry organization, said, “It is very difficult for council members to vote against the Fire Department.”

He and others are now waging an admittedly long-shot lobbying effort to persuade Mayor Tom Bradley to veto the ordinance. A Bradley spokesman said the mayor has not taken a position on the measure.

The industry, seeking to protect a $50-million market, its largest for fire-retardant wood roofs, has vowed to challenge the law in court, if necessary.

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At the county Hall of Administration, the board’s pro-business, conservative majority has sided with the industry, which has argued that fire-retardant roofs provide adequate protection.

Hahn and Supervisor Ed Edelman said Thursday that they will support a ban similar to the one enacted by the City Council. But conservative Supervisors Mike Antonovich, Deane Dana and Pete Schabarum in the past have questioned whether a ban on fire-retardant wood roofs is necessary.

County fire officials have not taken as strong a position as their city counterparts.

Assistant County Fire Chief Jim Daleo said he was not sure an all-out ban was necessary.

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“Let’s see if they work,” he said of the fire-retardant shingles. “Testing has said they work. Apparently, the city doesn’t believe they will work.”

Conservative Philosophy

Hahn suggested that opposition to a ban is rooted in the conservative board’s philosophy that “the less government, the better.”

The supervisors are considering extending to the sprawling unincorporated areas a requirement that new or replacement wood roofs be treated with fire retardants. Currently, all wood roofs are banned from the fire-prone Malibu area, and untreated wood roofs are prohibited in other hilly communities.

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The proposal has moved ahead with the support of all five supervisors and the roof industry.

Most new wood roofs installed in Southern California are of the fire-retardant variety. Antonovich pointed out that fire-retardant roofs, once double the cost of untreated wooden roofs, are now only about 25% more.

Hahn said he began his crusade to ban wood-shingle roofs after surveying the damage at the Bel-Air fire, which destroyed 450 homes in 1961. An ordinance banning untreated wood-shingle roofs in the flatlands was approved by the supervisors in 1979 but repealed in 1981, shortly after the election of the conservative majority.

Hahn said Thursday he will continue to press for a ban on all wood roofs.

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