Risky business

Cary Lowe is a San Diego land-use lawyer and planning consultant.

Living in Southern California is all about location. Some locations, however, come with major risks. Waves and winter storm winds buffet oceanfront homes, which sometimes fall into the sea as a result. Homes on hillsides have views for miles but are vulnerable to landslides. Residences bordering wild-land areas sometimes go up in flames when the weather turns dry and the Santa Anas blow. And the region is earthquake-prone.

We live with these risks because the trade-offs seem worth it. The chances of our home going up in flames or falling down a hillside seem relatively remote.

But the magnitude of the risks was again brought into sharp focus in October, when wind-driven wildfires burned half a million acres, destroyed more than 3,000 homes, killed 10 people and temporarily displaced nearly 20,000 more from Santa Barbara to the U.S.-Mexico border. Similar destruction occurred in 2005, and climate scientists predict even more severe fire seasons ahead.

Once the fires are put out, the official debate inevitably centers on how to respond more effectively to future conflagrations and how to better aid the victims. Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed an annual fee of 1.25% on all property insurance premiums in the state to generate, according to his office, $125 million a year for fire protection equipment and services. The state legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill, countered that the costs should be borne by the communities that allow houses to be built in fire-hazard areas and by the people who choose to live in them.

The disagreement boils down to two basic questions: Should local governments be allowed to continue approving development in fire-prone, or other hazardous, areas, and should all state residents keep subsidizing the choices of those who live there? Or should the state adopt rules limiting development in these areas and force the people who chose to live there to bear more of the risks?

We all pay the costs of building communities in fire-prone areas. Insurance companies covered most of the billion dollars worth of property damage caused by the October fires, but they spread their risk among all those they insure. The $66 million the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave to fire victims was public money. And taxpayers pick up the tab for fighting the fires, which is expected to total nearly $900 million this fire season. Many of us pay more directly, as wind-driven fires sweep through communities far from their points of origin.

The costs of developing near wild-land areas are not just financial. Much of the open space lost in the Southern California fires was critical habitat for a variety of plant and animal species. With their vegetation gone, hillsides and canyons are subject to erosion and mudslides when it rains. Measures taken to replant burn areas quickly often introduce highly flammable grasses and suppress native vegetation, increasing future hazards. Worse, the residue from the fires, and especially from burned structures, is highly toxic. It contaminates streams, reservoirs and wetlands, further despoiling our natural environment and poisoning water supplies.

Just because some communities that were designed and built to survive wild-land conflagrations were spared -- Stevenson Ranch near Santa Clarita, most notably -- doesn't mean that development on the urban fringe should continue. Putting people, houses, vehicles and power lines in hazardous areas increases the chances of fire, whether by accident or intention. The Buckweed fire, which burned north of Santa Clarita in Agua Dulce, was started by children playing with matches in wild lands behind their home. The Canyon fire that burned around Malibu was started by windblown sparks from a fire abandoned by partygoers. Nearly half the fires were traced to downed power lines.

We cannot undo the risks and costs of existing development along the urban fringe. We all will continue to pay for it through our insurance premiums and taxes. But signing off on Schwarzenegger's insurance-fee proposal without introducing some statewide limits on building near or in fire-prone areas would only perpetuate the status quo, which is not sustainable.

Imposing limits on building in hazardous areas is not unprecedented. The federal government designates flood-prone areas, in which building is restricted and insurance premiums are higher. California requires development to be set back from active earthquake faults. It should similarly designate and map areas that carry a high risk of fire and tightly regulate new construction there. That would mean local jurisdictions would lose some of their freedom to approve new housing developments. But this would be no different from existing state rules that bar them from green-lighting developments unless they can demonstrate there is a sufficient supply of water to support them.

Where development in fire-risk areas has been approved, residents should bear more of a share of the risk rather than count on the rest of us to subsidize their choice. There are at least four ways to bring about this shift.

First, insurance companies should be required to restructure their rates to more directly reflect the risks of living on the urban fringe, meaning that policy premiums would rise in those hazardous areas. Second, mortgage lenders should have to treat hazardous locations as a factor in setting interest rates and insurance requirements, meaning that buyers of houses in fire-prone areas would pay more. Third, local fire agencies should be able to impose special fees or taxes in fire-hazard areas to supplement funding for firefighting services and facilities. And electrical lines crossing hazardous areas should be put underground or kept clear of vegetation.

Government and business must stop acting as enablers for our addiction to building in desirable but dangerous places, and the risks of allowing such practices must be borne more directly by those who take them. The governor's fee proposal is a good place to begin the discussion, and more funding is definitely needed. But we would do far more to make Southern California a safer, less costly and environmentally friendlier place to live and work by adopting a few common-sense rules that would reduce the risks and costs for all Californians.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 02, 2008 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction Fire risks: A Feb. 24 Opinion article about who should absorb the risks of living in fire-prone areas compared the devastation of October's wildfires with that in the 2005 conflagrations. The year should have been 2003.
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