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Blazes Prompt Calls for Stricter Building Codes

November 05, 1993|JEFFREY L. RABIN and RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

No one knows it better than those who suffered most from two weeks of Southland fires: There is a price to pay for living on the edge of paradise.

Unmaintained brush, grass and trees turn small fires into infernos that can overrun entire neighborhoods.

Narrow roadways impede firefighters and evacuees.

Closely packed houses with wood siding and shake roofs virtually explode into flames. Propane tanks go up like bombs. And water pressure in the hills drops to nothing when electric pumps fail.

But this time, as communities from Malibu to Laguna Beach and Altadena to Thousand Oaks turn to rebuilding, the question once more is whether people will heed the lessons from the ashes to help avert similar disasters in the future.

Already, there are signs that attitudes among public officials and homeowners may be changing, as is often the case after a disaster.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 13, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 2 Column 3 National Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Malibu Water System--In a story on Friday, Nov. 5, a Los Angeles County Department of Public Works spokeswoman erroneously stated that Malibu's voters had rejected a bond issue to upgrade an aging water system years ago. In fact, no bond issue was put to the voters.

Los Angeles County officials temporarily have declared a moratorium on building permits in the fire-ravaged community of Pasadena Glen while they ponder how best to beef up safety restrictions before permitting homeowners to rebuild.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman has called for an independent panel of experts to determine if there is a need to rewrite the county's fire and building codes to better protect people who live in fire-prone areas.

"Government has a responsibility to ensure people's safety to the best degree that we can," said Edelman, whose district includes much of the Santa Monica Mountains. "We have to look at the question of how we can accomplish building at less risk."

In Orange County, officials said, there is perhaps no better example of how improved building standards and other preventive measures work than in the Laguna Beach community of Irvine Cove Crest.

The gated enclave of about 50 luxury homes on the inland side of Coast Highway emerged unscathed, but 60 homes in Emerald Bay next door burned to the ground.

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"Emerald Bay is a much older community," said Emmy Day, a spokeswoman with the Orange County Fire Department. "Irvine Cove (had) the newer construction--not as much wood and the roofs are made of non-combustible material. All of this can make a tremendous difference."

Laguna Beach has asked the State Office of Emergency Services to study what might have hindered firefighters in stopping the inferno, City Manager Ken Frank said.

Officials realize that the blaze fed on the many wood shake roofs in town, but building codes updated seven years ago already ban new wood roofs. The codes also encourage the planting of ice plant and other fire-resistant vegetation around homes. "So I don't anticipate any changes in the building codes," Frank said.

The city also will ask the state to assess whether a 3-million-gallon reservoir, which council members have refused to endorse for several months, should be built to aid in fighting blazes. The night of the fire, water pressure was low and reservoirs drained quickly, unable to be replenished because of a power failure.

Wood shake roofs, old construction and narrow access, combined with blow-torch conditions, were responsible for destroying most of the 42 houses and mobile homes lost in Ventura County, county Fire Chief George E. Lund said.

Ventura County planners are also contemplating stricter zoning laws that would allow fewer homes to be built in sparsely populated areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Even in communities untouched by the flames, there is talk of change.

The tiny Orange County community of Stanton plans to review how well its water supply can meet the emergency needs of a major fire. And Huntington Beach officials are looking at ways to ensure that more homeowners use fire-resistant materials.

For homeowners, whose main concern is to rebuild as quickly as possible, there is also talk of doing so with safety in mind.

"I learned something from this fire," said Stu Radstrom, 66, whose expensive ranch home in Malibu's Las Flores Canyon was leveled by the blaze. "I'll definitely keep the pond, and I'll get a pump. I'll have nothing growing that will catch fire within 30 feet of the house."

Each time disaster strikes, there are loud calls for reform. But as time passes, the sense of urgency often recedes and other factors, including funding, come into play. Still, major fires have sparked noteworthy changes.

In Glendale, where fire damaged or destroyed more than 60 homes and other buildings in 1991, rebuilt homes were required to have fire-safe roofs, enclosed eaves, double-glazed windows and fire-resistant exteriors. After the fire that leveled 641 structures in Santa Barbara that year, building codes were strengthened to require, among other things, fireproof roof coverings.

As the flames die down this week, politicians are calling for tougher building codes, which they say are needed to restrict the type of materials that can be used in certain brush-covered areas susceptible to fire.

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