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California's wildfire epidemic blamed on bad building decisions

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 11/14/2018 Christopher Flavelle
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Video by CBS News

California’s deadly wildfires have a straightforward solution, experts say: stop building homes in places that are likely to burn -- and make homes that already exist in those areas a whole lot tougher.

That approach, wildfire and climate policy experts are quick to add, would be expensive and unpopular, especially in a state with both a housing shortage and stunning wooded landscapes that people want to live in. But as climate change causes more frequent and shocking blazes, they say anything less won’t make enough of a difference.

“It’s a land-use issue,” said Alice Hill, a senior adviser for climate resilience to President Barack Obama. Without so many homes being constructed in vulnerable areas at the edge of the forest, “we would still have the fires. But we wouldn’t have this kind of devastation.”

A paradox of California’s wildfire epidemic is that it already has one of the most aggressive building codes in the nation. The state uses the most up-to-date version of model national codes, and doesn’t allow local governments to opt out of those codes. It also requires that homes in areas with the highest risk of wildfire get built with fire-resistant materials and construction techniques.

“I always use California as an example,” said Sara Yerkes, senior vice president of government relations for the International Code Council, the Washington-based nonprofit that releases updated model codes every three years. “The state really takes its responsibility seriously.”

But Yerkes said building codes are meant to be a baseline, providing a set of minimum requirements that states can add to based on their specific environments. And she said they don’t account for broader policy decisions, such as allowing subdivisions in places with high fire risks.

“There’s more people now living in these areas,” Yerkes said. “Maybe that’s something that these local governments need to look at.”

A spokeswoman for California Governor Jerry Brown, asked to respond to concerns that the state had failed to impose adequate restrictions on building in fire-prone areas, sent an excerpt from remarks Brown made during a press conference last December.

Building Standards

“Yes we need good building standards,” Brown said, according to the excerpt. “But when you say more building standards, I always want to say let’s do this very carefully because it is complex. That does raise costs. So we have to protect, but I want to do it in the wisest way possible.”

In interviews, wildfire policy experts pointed to a range of specific reforms that could help reduce the danger facing people and homes in California. Each of those reforms shared one trait: They cost money.

One problem, according to Molly Mowery, founder and chief executive officer of Wildfire Planning International, is that state and local officials tend to define high-risk areas too narrowly. As a result, California’s aggressive wildfire codes don’t apply in neighborhoods that may appear safer on paper, but are increasingly affected as fires grow in size.

“More and more places around the country are getting affected in areas that were never labeled extreme,” Mowery said. “We need to stop thinking in terms of limited areas.”

Fire-resistant materials and building techniques can increase the cost of construction. But those costs don’t have to be exorbitant, according to Stuart Tom, president of the municipal engineering and consulting firm JAS Pacific Inc. and a member of the International Code Council’s board of directors. He said some jurisdictions are considering mandating that older homes use materials that meet the latest requirements when they’re renovated.

“How do you get what are really really good standards to be integrated into communities of older, at-risk construction, in a fair and cost-effective manner?” Tom said. “If you are going to re-roof your building, well then perhaps the entire roof should be compliant” with the wildfire code.

Another option, and one that could produce even more pushback from residents, is to apply the latest building codes retroactively to all homes in vulnerable areas, whether they’re renovating or not.

Hill, the former Obama adviser, said that when a wildfire strikes, those older homes are quicker to catch, becoming a threat to the buildings around them. She said the risk of fires has become so great that local officials have to consider requiring all homeowners in wildfire areas to meet updated standards.

Wooden Roof

“I think they should be examining it,” said Hill, who is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. But she said the problem is cost. “To replace a wood shake roof is a very expensive matter.”

There’s a precedent for that step. In 2015, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, backed by a unanimous city council, applied that city’s earthquake-resistant seismic codes retroactively to the most vulnerable categories of buildings. Garcetti’s office didn’t respond to questions about whether he has considered a similar move for wildfire safety codes.

IN PHOTOS: California Wildfires

A more draconian measure would be to make it harder for developers to build subdivisions in risky areas in the first place.

Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association, said the increasingly deadly fires in California have prompted soul-searching among safety experts about how much can be accomplished by simply clearly flammable material from the area around a home.

Reaping Trouble

“It’s making a lot of us question, is it enough?” Steinberg said. “Why the heck did you all build there? This is just a bad land-use decision. Now you’re reaping the trouble.”

Still, Steinberg added that stopping people from building where they want to build can run counter to American values.

“Our country’s big value is owning your own land, owning your property,” Steinberg said. “Anything that appears to threaten that is really not met with happiness and open arms.”

It’s not just cultural values that prevent tighter land-use restrictions, but economic value as well, according to Hill.

“In Malibu, a hillside home will have a beautiful view of the ocean,” Hill said. “Those property lots are highly valuable. There’s lots of pressure on local officials to permit development. That increases your tax base, that contributes to the city’s coffers.”

a bridge over a body of water: Deadliest Wildfires In California History As Death Toll Rises © Bloomberg Deadliest Wildfires In California History As Death Toll Rises

The remains of a destroyed home stands along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu on Nov. 13.

If California won’t stop building at the edge of the wilderness, it should at least apply the same strict standards of firefighting that cities adopted decades ago, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana that advises governments on wildfire risks. That means significant new spending on water infrastructure and municipal employees, as well as a willingness to enforce tougher rules.

“You would have fire hydrants. You would have full-time firefighters in your neighborhood. You would require sprinklers," Rasker said. “And you’d have a fire department inspect your building and your property once a year, with strict penalties if you don’t comply.”

The reason that many towns at the edge of the forest don’t apply those standards is cost, he said. But as climate change gets worse, that calculus becomes more shortsighted.

“Human lives are invaluable,” Rasker said. “Yeah, cost matters. But the cost of not doing the right thing is tragedy.”

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