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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Despite Risk, Hills Irresistible to Home Buyers

October 28, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

There was a time when massive fires like the ones that have destroyed at least 1,500 homes across Southern California in the last few days might have ignited a debate about the wisdom of building vast tracts of houses in the region's foothills.

"We're way beyond that" now, said Hasan Ikhrata, director of transportation planning and policy for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "We passed that point 10 years ago."

Today the debate isn't whether people should live in the fire-prone zone known as the urban-wildland interface; it is what can be done to minimize the risk.

Communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and around Simi Valley, on the border between Los Angeles and Ventura counties, have been among the fastest growing in the state in the last decade.

No one living in the foothill communities can be guaranteed protection against massive wildfires. But there are some safeguards for the steadily growing numbers of people choosing to live in the tinder-dry fringes of the Los Angeles region.

Donald and Diana Foster, who were examining a split-level for sale off Topanga Boulevard on Sunday as smoke billowed on the skyline, said they knew what they would do if fire struck.

"If they say evacuate, you get out," Diana Foster said as she snapped photographs of the home, listed for $729,000. "You grab your pictures and run."

Carolyn Martin, who surveyed the ashes that remained of her 2,500-square-foot home in Claremont on Sunday morning, vowed to rebuild.

"Why not?" she asked. "This is the best place that can ever be, because the sun comes up over the east, and I look out over the hills."

Even Ikhrata couldn't resist the forces that have proved as strong as those driving the fires. He bought a home in Rancho Cucamonga, and on Monday he left it as flames from the Grand Prix fire came within 25 yards of his suburban property.

The natural facts are daunting: a dry Mediterranean climate, hot fall winds, rugged topography. Experts say wildfires are inevitable, just awaiting the right combination of tinder, wind and spark. But they do not have to leave a path of smoldering foundations and dead residents.

In the past decade, following a rash of fires in the Oakland hills in 1991 and in Malibu and Laguna Beach in 1993, California has adopted rules that fire experts say can substantially reduce fire risks. Many cities and counties, for example, have adopted new building codes regulating things like wood-shingle roofs. Others have adopted more stringent requirements for homeowners to remove brush around houses.

Both sets of rules recognize a single reality. "There are three factors that affect fires: fuel, weather and topography," said Frank Beall, professor of environmental science at UC Berkeley. "You can't do anything about weather; you can't do much about topography, but you can do something about fuel."

Many homes perched amid chaparral have, in essence, become more fuel for California's cyclical fires, Beall said.

The policies are not uniform across the state, however. And Ikhrata and others question whether the rules that do exist are adequately enforced.

"There are rules to provide firebreaks and fire stations, to provide high-pressure water, but developers get away with a lot," he said.

Ikhrata and others say homeowners need to be better educated on defending themselves.

Beall watched fire footage on television over the weekend and spotted a firefighter putting out flames on the underside of a house's eave, or soffit. "That really doesn't have to happen," he said. "There's so much that can be done that isn't."

Soffit vents that lead directly into a hot and dry attic can help turn an ordinary brush fire into a neighborhood inferno, Beall said.

So, too, can shrubs that provide a "ladder" for fire to enter a house.

Developers often finish off a tract with a green flourish that can put homeowners at risk, said John Radke, director of the geographic information science center at UC Berkeley.

"A lot of times, when you put up a development, you put in a plant that grows quickly and looks nice, and you sell houses," he said.

Take juniper, a popular landscape shrub. "They're nice and green, but the problem is, underneath you have a lot of dead wood. You might as well put a gasoline tank in front of your house."

During the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, Radke said, those shrubs threw off 35-foot flames. Other problem plants include eucalyptus, Italian cypress, and Monterey pine.

"The things that cause these structures to be lost are the little things," said Jim Smalley, manager of wildland fire protection for the National Fire Protection Assn. "It's sort of the weakest link -- a wooden deck chair up against the side of the house, pine needles in the window crevices."

Smalley also coordinates the national Firewise program, an effort by a coalition of fire management agencies to help homeowners defend against fires.

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