Once Ignited, Hard to Stop : * Combating Shake Roofs and Arsonists

Too much of Southern California has been burning. Hundreds of houses, primarily those with shake roofs, have been incinerated in communities from Santa Barbara south to San Diego. There are many culprits, including the drought, but two of them are criminal.

The state must ban wood shake roofs. The flames leapfrogged from shake roof to shake roof in Santa Barbara, where as many as 350 homes have been destroyed or damaged and over 3,500 acres charred by a blaze apparently started by an arsonist. Preliminary damage estimates have been set at $200 million, which would make that inferno the most expensive fire in the state’s history.

Arsonists started several other fires, including a major blaze in Glendale, where as many as 66 houses have been damaged or destroyed; 90% of those homes had wood shake shingle roofs. Gov. Deukmejian has offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to those responsible for the fires.

The fires are a huge economic tragedy for the five-county region. The human toll is unmeasurable. Hundreds of families are now homeless; many have lost everything. Fortunately, there have been no deaths. Heroic firefighters have suffered burns, smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion while battling the flames in temperatures topping 105 degrees and in the face of strong winds that have swept the flames across streets and even freeways.


For as long as Californians have built homes on dry hillsides, shake roofs have fueled too many fires. But local officials are powerless to impose stronger codes. Mayor Bradley and the Los Angeles City Council approved a local ban last year, for example, but the state attorney general’s office ruled that local communities lack the authority to approve local codes that are stricter than state codes. That decision puts the matter in the hands of the Legislature.

Proposed legislation would restore the authority of local jurisdictions to impose stricter fire codes. That measure merits approval in spite of opposition by the $150-million cedar-shake industry.

Shake roofs are rustic and charming but fire safety is not a matter of aesthetics. As the ashes cool, the state must proceed with a total ban on all wood shake roofs.