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27.10.03

Sprawl And Fire

California's Fire Policies Feel Heat

The spate of fires that began leapfrogging across Southern California Saturday, fueled by unseasonably hot weather and scorching winds, once again spotlights the vulnerability of California's arid climate to quick-moving blazes.
As happened 10 years ago, when flames destroyed 265 homes in Laguna Beach and in 1991 when 400 homes were devoured in the residential hills of Oakland and Berkeley, debates on past lessons and new regulations are already swirling like the white ash now rising above San Bernardino's blackened foothills.

Those debates include how California home builders site their subdivisions amid the tree-lined canyons where lush undergrowth fed by winter rains become tinder-dry brush by summer and late fall. They include fresh assessments of how well homeowners are keeping the leafy growth trimmed back, whether or not bans on flammable building materials have been effective, and severe critique of neighborhood planning designs that should have prevented the flames from leaping from one residence to the next.


This article was a bit disappointing, as it didn't go into much more detail than you see in the quoted paragraphs. Nevertheless, they raise an important issue relevant to the human vs. natural causes thing I wrote about in the previous post. A fire hazard (or any hazard, really) is a combination of the magnitude of the event and the exposure of people and property. That exposure is a largely human-made phenomenon. Current development patterns greatly complicate fire management, because they increase the amount of edge area where a fire threatens to cross from wildlands -- where, broadly speaking, it can and should burn -- into the built landscape -- where it can't and shouldn't. This increases the need for resource-intensive treatments like mechanical thinning (chopping stuff down) and house protection, while requiring the cooperation of a much larger array of individuals (since homeowners need to fire-proof their property).

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