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The Bureaucracy Feels the Heat : County inaction contributed to fire hazard in hillside homes

Sometimes it’s easy to understand the disdain many mountain dwellers feel toward Los Angeles County’s bureaucracy. Although mostly careful and conscientious, the county departments that regulate the design and construction of new development in the largely unincorporated western part of the Santa Monica Mountains sometimes make gaffes so potentially catastrophic that they raise serious questions about their ability to police the building industry.

The most recent oversight to spark debate involves the Summit Pointe Estates development at the north end of Topanga Canyon. The project was approved by the county in 1988. Its builder was required to install a sprinkler system in each house as a measure against brush fires, like the deadly blaze that swept from Calabasas to Malibu in 1993. The problem is 36 of the project’s 83 houses were built without the sprinkler systems.

How they passed the county’s final inspection before residents moved in remains unclear. In classic bureaucratic buck-passing style, none of the departments involved--regional planning, public works and fire--wants to accept responsibility for the oversight. All should, though. The issue here is not the protection of a few expensive homes, but the protection of thousands of acres of wild land--the very heart of the Santa Monicas.

Sprinklers aren’t designed to protect buildings from brush-fed infernos that shoot flames dozens of feet into the air and devour everything in their path. They are, however, designed to make sure that simple house fires resulting from cooking accidents or carelessly discarded cigarettes don’t consume a building, then spread to surrounding brush. Mountain homes built without anti-fire sprinklers threaten all of us.

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To their credit, county officials ordered the developer to halt work on the project after residents pointed out the problem. Remaining homes were built with the fire-suppression systems. What to do about the original 36, however, has ignited its own fiery debate. Some residents sued the county last month in an effort to get their homes retrofitted with the sprinkler systems. Others aren’t sure they want to go through the hassle of having their homes ripped apart for the installation.

A compromise calls for the creation of an eight-step program that includes the outfitting of homes with smoke detectors monitored by a central station, the improvement of water flow to nearby fire hydrants and the writing of disaster and maintenance plans--all paid for by the developer. Although it’s a good start, we don’t think the plan goes far enough. The tract is hard to reach, so even the best warning system could be stymied by poor conditions. Inconvenient as they may be, sprinklers remain the best solution to an inexcusable situation.


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