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2.4.04

So Up My Dissertation Alley It's Not Even Funny

It looks like landscaping for fire safety was vindicated in last year's California fires:

Some Homes Had Shields To Ward Off Wildfires

... according to the [Los Angeles] Times analysis — which covered homes destroyed by the deadliest of the blazes, San Diego County's Cedar fire — houses built since 1990 were far less likely to burn than those constructed in any previous decade. Houses built during the 1990s were damaged or destroyed at less than half the rate of houses built earlier. Houses constructed during the current decade were even less likely to have been harmed.

... Vegetation was the largest single factor in whether a house burned. Almost nine of 10 houses destroyed outside San Diego city limits had flammable vegetation within 30 feet, and two-thirds had flammable vegetation within 10 feet, according to county field inspections of houses where the vegetation line before the fire could be determined. (City inspectors did not note the presence of vegetation.)

... Trying to make rebuilding as easy as possible, the county has waived permit fees and expedited reviews. Officials have also let older houses be rebuilt with smaller property-line setbacks than would be required under current zoning codes.

"It met standards in the 1950s, and just because there was a fire, it didn't seem fair to hold them to today's standards," said Scott Gilmore, San Diego County planning department permit process coordinator.


It's encouraging that land management decisions like tile roofs and clearing defensible space can make such an impact on fire. But at the same time, it's clear that the possibility of little actions like this doesn't alter the fact that fire management is still a collective action problem, as the boundaries of a house's defensible space can overreach property boundaries.

I have trouble sympathizing with the people who resist fireproof landscaping because it doesn't give them the kind of rustic beauty they wanted. There's an air of privilege to it -- with my millions of dollars, I should be able to have exactly the landscaping I want. On a tough-love policy level, if certain choices become off the table, it could create a disincentive for the kind of sprawl that creates these intermix fire problems in the first place (since that rustic beauty is what draws many people to build here in the first place).

I also have trouble accepting Gilmore's grandfather clause idea. If the standards are necessary for fire protection, then it makes no sense to allow people to put themselves and others back in danger. Indeed, disaster relief aid should be deliberately aimed at pushing people to meet the standards, and helping those who can't afford the best construction to get there, rather than relaxing things. It's surprising how quickly alertness and concern can evaporate after the fire is out.

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