Some Good News on the Wildfire Front

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

As fire raced up hillsides and down ravines in Northern and Southern California recently – killing dozens of individuals, destroying whole communities and leaving countless people homeless – residents of Stevenson Ranch in the Santa Clarita area of the state must have thought back to nearly twelve years earlier when a similar conflagration roared through the brush outside their neighborhoods – through hillsides, gullies and ravines.  That horrifying event destroyed hundreds of homes in north Los Angeles County – except theirs.

Firefighters have described wildfires, fueled by the arid landscape and the wicked desert winds of California, as continuous explosions of heat and energy.  Indeed, the intensity of these firestorms when they’re at full force – eclipsing 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit – typically mean anything in their path won’t survive.  That’s what was happening in 2007 when the wildlands of Los Angeles County were ablaze. Stevenson Ranch residents never expected to see their homes again.

Miraculously, the dream houses of the then-newly constructed Stevenson Ranch were still standing – all of them – when owners returned to assess the damage after the fire had passed.  Somehow, thought Stevenson Ranch residents, they were spared the grief and agony of so many suburban dwellers elsewhere in Southern California whose homes went up in flames that year.  Luck, they must have thought. Divine intervention, maybe. Whatever crept into their minds, they must have been wondering why.

More and more new housing is going into fire-risk areas of the state but thanks to the modern design of subdivisions – and the homes that go in them – it is largely fire-free.  Just ask Emil Costa, a resident of a new San Diego County subdivision which stands unscathed today after being surrounded by flames during the region’s notorious and destructive “Witch” fire in 2003.  Costa refused to leave his home when others, including his wife, urged him to do so. He was betting on his homebuilder, who had advised him that the adopted “shelter in place” fire-safety strategy would protect his home, tucked into a hillside.  It did.

The Associated Press reported 53 homes were lost in Costa’s Rancho Santa Fe community but none of them was in the newer subdivisions that embraced tough new building standards, including the “shelter in place” concept.  Said Costa, “I don’t feel like . . . a hero. I just felt that I was doing the right thing because ‘shelter in place’ is designed for you to stay put and defend your home.”

Techniques like “shelter in place” – which employs fire-retardant building components, subdivision “circulation” design improvements and combustion-free perimeters surrounding residential property – not only saved property during the fires of Los Angeles and San Diego counties, but saved lives.  Fire officials lauded these subdivisions for producing people like Costa, who were credited by firefighters for helping immensely – keeping them out of harm’s way and limiting the number of dangerous evacuations those brave men and women had to make.

During a recent wildfire in Orange County, fire officials decided to let residents take shelter in their homes rather than evacuate them.  “If we were not confident they would not be threatened,” said the County’s fire chief, “we would not put them (or firefighters) in that situation.”  Not only are these communities – designed and constructed by California homebuilders – lifesavers, they mean firefighters are free to move to save the older, more at-risk structures.  

These examples show how subdivision residents, thanks to area homebuilders, can become part of the solution – helping to save lives and property.

No one yet knows how many homes were spared by the recent Camp, Hill and Woolsey fires by “shelter in place” designs – passing harrowing, life-and-death struggles against the forces of these disasters.  The success or failure during these wildfires of “shelter in place” – or its sister strategy “defensive space” – should be examined, however, before legislators and policy makers at the Capitol rush to enact tough new restrictions on development in California wildlands.  

Meanwhile, California homebuilders have taken the initiative to ensure their new subdivisions are fire-safe.  Several years ago, the state homebuilders association – CBIA – sponsored legislation to establish a model fire-safety ordinance to be adopted by all communities in fire-risk areas of the state.  At the same time, California homebuilders are designing fire-safe communities when they reach into areas bordered by wildlands.

Like the Los Angeles County fire official remarked about Stevenson Ranch back in 2007, “modern communities (like that one) have made their own luck.”

THIS JUST IN:  The City of Paradise just issued its first building permit since the fire.  You can be sure that the approval came with new design features, emblematic of CBIA’s construction standards.  Said a local design consultant said the new town will be designed to have less ready fuel for fires, including fewer trees, less landscaping, fewer propane tanks, and “a stronger emphasis on defensible space around homes.”

Of course, these new building standards won’t stop wildfires from occurring.  But, they might save some property, and maybe a life or two.

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