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Hot Trend: A Home in the Woods

The Nation

Fires: Western residents flock to forest living, often disregarding the risks. Widespread drought means tragedy is inevitable.

May 22, 2002|JULIE CART and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sometimes fire rules conflict with other regulations. Boulder County mandates that mountain homes maintain a cleared space to keep fire at bay, which usually requires cutting trees. But the county also has a rule that says trees must screen homes from each other.

"When you get in a battle between aesthetics and fire safety, who do you think wins?" asked Dombrowski.

Even when fire restrictions are in place, Dombrowski said, they only apply to new construction.

So far this year, nearly 2,000 fires have burned more than 200,000 acres in the West. David Theobald, a research scientist at Colorado State University, maps housing density at the forest fringe for the Colorado Forest Service. He says his research focuses on the forest edge, so his estimated 12.2 million does not come close to including all Westerners at risk of wildfires.

"It excludes all of Southern California and most of Arizona, for example, where there is low shrub and chaparral," said Theobald. "Those areas burn all the time."

The insurance industry neither penalizes these homeowners with high premiums nor offers discounts for fireproofing. The reason, they say, is statistics.

Insurers, in Colorado, for example, say that by far the biggest loss is from hail, so they offer a discount for a hail-resistant roof but not a fire-retardant one.

"I hate to say this, but there aren't enough wildfires to generate statistical data to justify rate changes," said Charlie Howard, the Western fire underwriting superintendent for State Farm Insurance. "We have good data about how car alarms reduce theft and how air bags reduce injury, but wildfires are so unpredictable. Even though intuitively we know fire-retardant roofs save homes, we can't prove it statistically."

But even economic disincentives are unlikely to stop the growth of homes in the mountains, where people come for the tranquillity and the beauty. And for the trees.

"I hadn't thought too much about fire, and I know it's an issue," said Beverly Brown, who moved into a wood-sided home in the Prescott mountains last year. "But life is too short to worry about it. A disaster could happen to anybody at any time. Whatever life brings is what we get."

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