Region's new homes lining up in fires' path

Times Staff Writers

Much of the new development in Los Angeles and Orange counties is occurring on land the state says is at high risk for wildfires, according to records and interviews.

With little raw land available in flat areas, builders are planning huge tracts of homes on or just below the rough hillsides that fringe the region's metropolitan areas.

Hillside living is popular with home buyers because of the sweeping views, country feel and proximity to nature. But with their tall brush and trees, and steep terrain that can act as a wind tunnel to speed along a blaze, these are the very areas likely to burn.

A symbol of how the suburban building boom has stretched to meet the fire danger can be found off Plum Canyon Road near Canyon Country, where last month's fires blackened land being graded for new homes. The fire left the distorted remains of water sprinklers coated with ash and dirt.

But no sooner had the flames died than construction workers were back out, cleaning the site in unincorporated Santa Clarita and preparing to build 600 homes.

The project, called Monte Verde, is in what L.A. County planners and fire officials call a "very high fire hazard severity zone," the riskiest designation.

In the wake of the October blazes that burned more than 2,000 homes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked a state wildfire task force to consider whether construction should be limited in the riskiest zones, joining a growing chorus of safety advocates and environmentalists who have also proposed tougher hillside building rules.

Despite such concerns, however, a tide of new development in high-risk zones is well underway.

About 60,000 new homes are proposed for the hills, canyons and scrubby flats of northern Los Angeles County over the next few years.

These include two mega- developments along what is now a sparsely populated stretch of the 5 Freeway: Centennial, near Tejon Ranch; and Newhall Ranch, north of Santa Clarita.

In Orange County, more than 20,000 homes are planned by the Irvine Co. and Mission Viejo Co. in zones considered at high risk for brush fires.

Fire prevention officials say they require homes built in such areas to include a long list of safety features, including landscaping meant to keep flames away from houses and the use of flame-retardant building materials. They note these are precautions that newer communities, including Foothill Ranch, Portola Hills and Stevenson Ranch, have taken to protect homes.

Michael LeBlanc of the Irvine Co. said he watched with some satisfaction last month as news reports showed the Santiago fire racing across a toll road and around a bend toward the first phase of the firm's 4,500-home Portola Springs project, and then dying.

"It reached the fuel modification zone and it stopped," he said. "The fire just stopped."

But some longtime safety advocates say building in fire zones puts people at risk and costs society billions for firefighting and rescue efforts.

"This is a land rush into danger," said Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service and author of a recent book on wildfires. "A land rush by people who do not understand what they are doing and who are subsidized by others to do it. It's crazy."

Even if firefighters can save these homes, the firefighting costs are expected to continue to rise.

The state legislative analyst's office estimated that it would cost about $869 million to fight wildfires in fiscal 2007-08 -- an 83% increase over the cost 10 years ago.

In a report released earlier this year, the legislative analyst recommended that local governments that approve development in high-risk fire zones be required to pay for the cost of firefighting. Homeowners should also pay an extra firefighting fee if they choose to move to such areas, the report recommended.

Schwarzenegger last week asked the blue-ribbon commission set up after the 2003 wildfires to reexamine rules for building in high-severity fire zones, although a spokesman said it was too soon to say what changes might be needed.

Public agencies and the politicians who run them have long been wary of telling property owners they cannot build somewhere simply because of fire risk.

But Carroll Wills, a spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters union, said that fires in recent years have become more frequent -- and ferocious. In four years, he said, the state has suffered two fires that are normally considered "100-year" events -- the October fires and those in 2003.

"A fire like we had this time . . . aside from building your home out of solid marble, you're not going to stop that fire," Wills said.

Among the other L.A. County developments in high-risk areas are Newhall Ranch, Las Lomas, Centennial and Ritter Ranch, according to fire experts, county planners, developers and state and local fire maps. The Anaverde project in the Palmdale area borders such a zone.

"Nearly all of the major subdivisions in north county are in a very high fire hazard zone," said Paul Novak, planning deputy for county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area.

State fire officials measure the likelihood that fire will occur by assessing a number of factors, including vegetation, topography, the speed at which fires tend to move and the amount of heat they produce.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection rates each area by the degree of hazard and plots it on a map that shows who is responsible for fighting fires there.

In Orange County, buildable space of any kind is at a premium.

The Irvine Co. and Mission Viejo Co., two of the region's largest landowners, have received approvals from county and city officials to build more than 26,000 homes over the next 20 to 30 years in very high fire zones that push up against the Cleveland National Forest, Caspers Regional Park's wilderness area and their own substantial open space preserves.

All those areas contain windy ridges, highly flammable brush and terrain that are a recipe for future wildfires, said George Ewan, the Orange County Fire Authority's wild-land fire defense planner.

Open those areas to roads, and development and other human access and fire could easily follow, he said.

"Dragging a chain behind a vehicle can jump-start a fire. A catalytic converter burning out can start it. All kinds of things can make [the land] more prone to ignition," Ewan said.

Los Angeles County requires that all new homes in fire-prone areas be surrounded by a series of landscape zones, including a "wet zone" of fire-resistant plants and well-watered lawns near the house.

That zone must be surrounded by an area of trimmed and thinned brush and encircled again by an area where the brush is trimmed but not required to be as thin.

The homes must be built with fire-retardant materials, including tile roofs. Beams used for porches and railings must be thick enough that they do not burn easily. Fire officials in Orange County impose similar requirements.

Developers say they are also taking steps to protect homeowners.

At Newhall Ranch, a planned new town of 21,000 homes, developers intend to pay extra attention to maintaining the landscaping around common areas, such as playgrounds and community pools, as they have done in previous projects, said spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer.

"If you're building in an appropriate manner, a lot of times new construction can withstand potential fires," she said.

Developers of the 23,000-home Centennial project near Quail Lake, which is in the environmental review stage, say they have agreed to build a fire station to serve the project.

People who live in these zones pay extra for fire insurance -- if they can get it at all. In Plum Canyon, most groused about it too -- until last month's fires.

"Who knows if they should have built these homes," said Christine Martinez, 41, gesturing toward the houses on her block, one hill over from the scorched construction site.

The Buckweed fire had raced across that newly graded parcel and stopped just 20 feet from Martinez's 2,200-square-foot stucco and tile house.

"That's what you get with the view," said Melanie Altieri, who lives on nearby Shana Place. "Fires."

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@ latimes.com

janet.wilson@latimes.com

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Times researcher Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

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