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Desire to Rebuild Often Outweighs Fear of Fire : Housing: Residents cite private property rights in their insistence to replace homes in fire-prone areas. But officials frequently toughen building codes, requiring safer materials.

November 04, 1993|PATRICK LEE and CARLA LAZZARESCHI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The latest fires sweeping Southern California are a grim reminder of the perils of living too close to nature. But that has not stopped victims of earlier conflagrations from rebuilding in the same fire-prone places, often with the blessing of public officials.

In canyons, forests and wildlands throughout the state, rebuilding has occurred quickly after major fires. Often, improved fire codes, building methods and materials make the new homes far more fire resistant than the old ones.

Even so, "if you go back into those areas that are fire-prone . . . you can do a lot of things, but you're still hanging out there," said Tim Lewis, deputy chief of prevention and engineering with the California Department of Forestry.

Consider:

* In Shasta County, where a 1992 fire damaged or destroyed 636 structures, residents are being allowed to rebuild in the same heavily forested areas, and fire standards have not materially improved. "Not a lot has changed in terms of codes," said county Fire Warden Ray Stewart.

* In Calaveras County, where the same wildfires wiped out 30 houses, homeowners are being allowed to rebuild under the same codes and conditions that have been on the books for years. "The fires prompted no changes in the code," said Ray Waller, the county's chief building official. "We continue to adhere to the statewide minimums for fire safety. We should probably change, but in this day and age to impose any new building costs might not be the most politically correct thing to do."

* In Glendale, where the 1990 College Hills fire destroyed or damaged more than 60 homes and other buildings, homes were rebuilt to strict codes requiring fire-safe roofs, enclosed eaves, double-glazed windows, fire-resistant exteriors, etc.

But people were still allowed to rebuild in an area prone to blazes. Why?

"Out of fairness," said Mayor Larry Zarian. "If you have a tragedy . . . you should not be penalized."

* In Santa Barbara, site of a disastrous 1990 fire that wiped out 641 homes and other buildings, the city and county strengthened building codes to require, among other things, fireproof roof coverings. But many homeowners were allowed to rebuild in fire-affected areas, even where building codes would not otherwise permit new development.

"Rather than deal with the political dilemma of denying people the opportunity to rebuild and make themselves whole, the decision was made that if they intended to rebuild what they had before, to let current-day requirements go unfulfilled," said Scott Halliday, executive assistant to Santa Barbara County Supervisor Tom Rogers, in whose district the fire occurred.

Lewis puts it more directly: "It's hard to tell people they can't (rebuild) if they own the land and the insurance company pays for it."

After major fires, officials usually strengthen fire codes or redouble enforcement of existing ones governing such things as brush clearance and fire-proof roof coverings. In some cases, wholesale changes make a big difference.

After the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm that destroyed nearly 3,000 structures, aggressive steps were taken by city officials to improve fire safety in affected neighborhoods, including upgrading standards for roofing and clearance.

The fire also spurred the passage of state legislation requiring similar standards for all homes in hazardous areas, starting in 1995.

In San Bernardino, a devastating 1980 fire that destroyed 325 homes gave rise to what California Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Paul Miller calls "the most stringent laws on the books anywhere in the state."

Within a year after 70-m.p.h. Santa Ana winds carried a forest fire from a remote canyon to a residential neighborhood, rebuilding had begun, but under an entirely new set of rules, said San Bernardino Fire Chief Will Wright.

Shake roofs--even those treated with fire retardants--were outlawed. Additional fire hydrants and new entryways into the neighborhood for emergency vehicles were installed. A lush greenbelt was planted just behind the homes to prevent matchstick-like grasses from growing back.

Similar building codes were adopted a few years later by San Bernardino County to govern new building in areas bordering mountainous, open terrain.

Such laws "have already shown that they work," Miller said.

Two years ago, a fire in Carbon Canyon in the Chino Hills consumed 12 homes built before the new codes took effect. But a nearby subdivision of 200 homes built in the late 1980s was entirely spared. "The new fire safety building standards saved those homes," Miller said.

Unfortunately, many measures that might make it easier to fight the next fires are never implemented. One major complaint in the Oakland Hills fire was the inaccessibility to some neighborhoods because of narrow streets.

But few of the affected streets are being widened even as neighborhoods are being rebuilt.

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