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Fight Fire With Foresight

November 04, 2003

No house is fireproof, and no one who endures forces as capricious as the Santa Ana winds that blew flames across three-quarters of a million acres in the last two weeks can be guaranteed protection against fires. Safety experts, however, say it's not a coincidence that counties and developers that created fire-resistant envelopes around homes fared dramatically better in the recent wildfires.

Of course, housing location and density, as well as wind speed and direction, all mattered. But in San Bernardino County, where homeowners are required to clear only 30 feet of brush around woodland homes each spring, flames tore across 150,000 acres and through more than 900 dwellings. Ventura County, which requires a 100-foot clearance, lost just 38 homes even though more than 172,000 acres burned. Not one house was lost in Los Angeles County's Stevenson Ranch, which requires fire-retardant roofs and 200-foot buffers, even though flames approached the planned community in the Santa Susana Mountains. San Diego County also requires a 100-foot buffer in fire-prone areas, but budget problems have restricted enforcement.

The use of building codes and zoning laws to protect lives, property and resources is venerable. Seventy years ago, landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. suggested such restrictions to protect homes surrounded by chaparral in Malibu.

Last week, the Senate passed a compromise bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that allocates $760 million a year to clearing federal forest lands of the dense underbrush that can turn small fires into catastrophes. The Feinstein bill, however, only "encourages" people to follow fire-smart practices on the state and private lands where the fires did their greatest damage: brushy landscapes where suburban homes abut the tinderbox shrubs known as chaparral.

Bush administration officials are holding meetings this week with insurance company executives and county zoning officials about how to encourage better fire-safety practices on private property. Proposals include enacting regionwide zoning laws to prevent developers from "zoning shopping," improving enforcement of existing zoning and creating tougher insurance requirements for defensible zones around developed property. Also important in the West is assurance of adequate water supplies for firefighting.

There are other issues that the nation has yet to confront, says William L. Baker, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Wyoming. "Can we discourage or prohibit development near fire-prone forests, as we do in flood plains, by zoning, or by withholding public fire protection, or by raising insurance rates?" Baker asks. "If not, how should costs be shared by the public and landowners?"

Life in the fire-prone zone known as the urban-wildland interface will always be hazardous. But as Ventura County and Stevenson Ranch have shown, there's much that regulators can do to reduce those dangers.

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