Experts Seek Stricter Fire-Prevention Measures

Times Staff Writer

Fire experts and public officials are calling for a new round of reforms to address problems exposed by last month's Southern California blazes, which destroyed about 3,500 homes and charred 750,000 acres -- an area larger than Orange County.

A new state commission and task forces in San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties will focus on lessons the experts say can be learned from the most destructive wildfires in state history. The potential reforms are not new ideas, but they may nonetheless spark debate.

Experts are recommending stricter building standards in high-risk fire zones, wider brush clearance around dwellings, less haphazard development, more planned burns to reduce fuel and better coordination among fire agencies.

They are calling for more cooperation between government and homeowner groups.

They are saying it is time to force removal of old, untreated wood roofs because they jeopardize entire neighborhoods.

They are saying that local agencies must be more diligent in enforcing existing anti-fire laws, that insurance companies should charge more in high-hazard zones and that the federal government should stop helping homeowners who build in high fire-risk areas.

"There's something we can learn out of every disaster," said Rich Schell, chief of fire planning and engineering for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Fire is going to find any weakness you have in construction."

With fire-resistant building materials and design, and with wide vegetation clearance, Schell said, more than 90% of homes threatened by firestorms survive. Strict new construction codes imposed in Los Angeles County after a series of previous fires work and should be implemented statewide, he said.

"There are a couple of success stories out of this," Schell said. "One is Stevenson Ranch. It is a newer community designed with fire protection in mind. That's the development of the future. That's where we need to go."

There, on the hilly western edge of Santa Clarita, firefighters had what they needed to be successful: wide roads to accommodate firetrucks, good water pressure and vegetation clearance; and homes constructed from fire-resistant materials, such as tile roofs, stucco exteriors, double-paned windows, and fire-resistant eaves with limited air flow to attics.

Perhaps as important, he said, was homeowner maintenance of the anti-fire components. "Government will never be in a position to regulate complete fire safety. It takes homeowner responsibility to make it work."

Part of a statewide fix has been implemented.

Two weeks before the first big Southland blaze ignited in Ventura County on Oct. 23, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill authorizing the state fire marshal to develop strict new building standards for the so-called wildland-rural-interface-urban areas of California. About 1.7 million houses are in very high or extreme fire danger in those zones, the state reported in February. The new standards must be submitted to the state Building Standards Commission by Jan. 1, 2005, for consideration.

"What we're trying to do is raise the bar for these high fire-hazard zones," said Melissa Frago, a deputy state fire marshal. "Right now the [state] building code only includes fire-retardant roofing standards."

The new law is expected to include fire-resistance standards for exterior walls, windows, decks, patios and attic openings.

That might be a start, said U.S. Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen, one of the nation's top experts on why homes burn during wildfires. But Californians can't count on building codes to save them, he said.

"Frankly, California has a history of not being able to enforce much of its wildland fire regulations," he said.

Homes burned in the recent fires because 80-mph winds created by towering plumes of flame flung glowing embers, called firebrands, up to a mile ahead of the fire lines, Cohen said. They landed on houses, decks, patio cushions, hemp doormats, flammable shrubs, pine needles in rain gutters and accumulated leaves and clutter around homes.

"Look at the poster child of Southern California fires, Scripps Ranch," he said. "You look down a street of totally consumed homes surrounded by an unburned eucalyptus grove. These houses were not destroyed because a canopy of trees ignited."

The same is true in a second location where more than 300 homes also burned, the aging pine-studded canyon community of Cedar Glen near Lake Arrowhead, Cohen said.

Both neighborhoods were ravaged because flying embers found plenty of available fuel, including highly flammable landscaping vegetation touching houses, he said.

Of the 15,000 homes exposed to the recent fires, just 3,500 burned. Many probably survived because owners had fire-resistant homes and cleared hazards for 100 feet around them, the so-called home-ignition zone, he said. Neighborhoods need to recognize that they are as vulnerable as their weakest link, he said. "The community that doesn't cooperate will certainly burn together."

Fire historian Richard Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University, said the single reform that makes most sense is mandatory replacement of untreated shake-shingle roofs.

"The firefighters told me that roofing is still the greatest single point of vulnerability," he said after touring Scripps Ranch. Pyne, who has studied fires around the world, said he favored public ownership of wide, landscaped buffer zones around subdivisions. And he backs the establishment of a "fire militia" within communities to educate residents on how to prevent and fight fires. "There are a lot of things we can do within communities. We just haven't gotten serious about it," he said.

Tim Coyle, vice president of the California Building Industry Assn., said it was too early to comment on any proposals, because the governor's commission has not done its work.

"We're all probably better off not speculating on what would be the best response to these fires until we see the recommendations," he said.

Many officials along the 200-mile-long arc of the fires say they know change is necessary. But several declined to be specific until task forces complete their studies of why homes burned.

But in Ventura County, where 172,000 acres burned but only 38 dwellings were destroyed, county Fire Chief Bob Roper said he had seen enough.

While the county is seen as a model, because of strict brush clearance laws and anti-sprawl guidelines, Roper said the county's 100-foot clearance standard may need to be raised to 200 feet in hilly areas.

That compares with a minimum state requirement of 30 feet in very high fire-hazard areas, a rule generally used in the fire zones of San Bernardino County, and in some burn areas of San Diego County. Los Angeles County enforces a 200-foot requirement for at least partial clearance in high-hazard areas such as Malibu.

It's also clear that standards should be considered for ornamental vegetation, Roper said. He would also like to see all untreated wooden roofs replaced, and more planned fires set to reduce destruction from large fires. "People are going to continue to move into these wildland interface areas, and we'll never have enough fire engines to put one at every house," he said.

But reform is useless if not enforced, said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. After the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills fire, Bates, then an assemblyman for the area, wrote a new law requiring 30-foot brush clearance in high-hazard local jurisdictions for the first time and banning installation of untreated shake roofs on new homes in very high-hazard zones.

"Enforcement is the big problem," said Bates as he glanced out his City Hall office at eucalyptus trees bordering homes in the nearby Berkeley Hills.

"My legislation is not being enforced, even in my own jurisdiction," he said. "And I'm going to start pushing that."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fire danger zones

California's fire danger assessment*:

*--* Wildfire threat Wildland High Very high Extreme (less than one Houses 95,168 109,451 42,359 house per 20 acres) Acres 38,558,225 27,545,675 8,344,217 Rural (one house per Houses 89,197 133,337 49,564 five to 20 acres) Acres 821,079 1,318,935 463,543 Interface (one house per Houses 208,338 198,692 110,275 one to five acres) Acres 435,353 474,121 251,420 Urban (one house Houses 5,117,279 666,635 383,094 per acre) Acres 1,618,896 370,759 210,205

*--*

*As of February 2003.

Source: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

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