October 29, 2007

No one wants to take their medicine

Well we knew it was coming. Just like it does every year. TV reporter bonanza week. Fire Season which now stretches into longer and longer seasons each year, as do the number of santa ana's or "offshore wind events" (as they are now in this age over "techno-describing" everything). So now the blame game begins. Who can we blame? The feds, FEMA, the state, the county, the city, developers, insurers, real estate industry, Al Queda, Global Warming, Al Gore...? The LA Times article below only covers some of it issues. It takes aim at the developers and the home buyers who buy into this mess we have in the housing market we have today. Here are some other causes:

1. Lack of proper brush clearing. Clearing should be a quarter mile from homes. Will that get done? No as its too costly and most of the brush to be cleared lies on govt. owned land and we all know they wont clear their own land while at the same time telling private homeowners to do it.

2. Allowing politicians to squander money away in ballot propositions aimed at fixing a specific problem and diverting it toward some other pet project or "political fire" of the moment.

3. Lack of cost effectiveness in fire protection. Like building a 50 million dollar training center in Orange County (aka "Taj Mahal") which really could have been spent on more part time crews to fight fires or leasing better air or ground equipment to use on a temporary basis in the fire season.

4. Not effectively using prisoners or volunteers to help with structure protection

5. Poor overall coordination of firefighting resources throughout the state

6. Homeowners or HOA's not insuring property for current rebuilding costs.Some have estimated that in the most recent fire 60% of the homeowners will be under insured.

7. Failure of the federal government to implement a federally mandated "all risk" homeowners policy that covers all risks regardless of what area of the country you live in.

8. Failure of homeowners, builders, government and insurers, to accept the risk of living in fire prone areas and doing what it takes to live there (getting adequate insurance, clearing brush, ensuring proper construction with fire resistant materials, fire spotting volunteers in high risk areas and periods etc., proper zoning and locations)

9. Failure of the government at all levels to insure that brush and trees do not get too thick in non cleared areas. This means the environmentalist will need to back off if they are going to allow development in these areas. I wonder how many "tree huggers" lost their homes?

10. Not undertaking an analysis as to what the origin of most of these fires are and taking steps to reduce the likelihood of those causes. Arson is obviously a big issue and very difficult to stop. Powerline issues are simply the result of negligence.

From the Los Angeles Times
It's time to recognize, not defy, wildfire risks
To break the cycle of build and burn, those who create and approve subdivisions in Southern California must take site and climate into consideration.
By Christopher Hawthorne
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

7:25 PM PDT, October 29, 2007

The enduring image of the Southern California hillside resident -- the one who braces for disaster every fall, just as the Santa Anas begin to blow -- is that of a self-reliant, latter-day homesteader who settled up among the trees because he finds solitude and freedom there. And maybe because he remains a bit suspicious of life in the city.

It wasn't hard to find examples of the breed in news coverage of last week's devastating fires, guiding horses to safety or crustily refusing to evacuate. Yet the vast majority of the nearly 2,000 houses destroyed so far weren't outposts marking the last remaining frontiers of the American West. They were neatly lined up in subdivisions, on gently curving streets slotted into terraced hillsides. Many of the biggest fires grew by leaping from one cul-de-sac to the next, tearing through the territory that the writer Mike Davis once called "Sloping Suburbia."

Since the middle of the 20th century, this is how we have developed much of our new housing in the U.S., and particularly in Southern California: by pushing deep into canyons and deserts and onto flood plains. We build reassuringly familiar-looking subdivisions, decorated with vaguely Spanish or Mediterranean accents, in locations that by land-use standards -- and by common-sense standards -- are truly exotic. We build with the unstinting belief that growth is good and that progress in the form of various kinds of technology -- new building materials, military-style firefighting, a vast system of pumps and levees -- will continue to make it possible to construct new pockets of nostalgic architecture virtually anywhere.

But maybe our nostalgia should extend beyond red-tile roofs to include earlier lessons about how and where it is safe to build. This country's culture as a whole is in the midst of a profound shift from the unquestioning confidence that marked the so-called American Century to a new recognition of risk, conservation, even fragility. Green architecture, with its rather old-fashioned emphasis on paying attention to site and climate, is part of that shift. But those who build and approve new hillside development -- "the lords of subdivision," as the nature writer Richard Lillard called them, the "replanners of the Earth's surface" -- have barely acknowledged it.

One of the success stories of the last week has been Stevenson Ranch near Santa Clarita, which narrowly averted destruction in part because its houses were built with concrete roof tiles and heat-resistant windows. To celebrate this neighborhood as a model for escaping fire is itself a kind of escapism. But the question is never, Why am I building here on this hillside that predictably catches fire every few years in the fall (and maybe now in spring or summer too)? It is, instead, How can technology and new materials -- how can progress -- protect me from the dangers inherent in living where I have chosen to live?

The aesthetic basis of a typical subdivision is reassurance and stability. Builders enforce those qualities with massive earthmoving operations, to flatten the streets and blur the topographical differences between one hillside and the next, and with architecture, choosing from a well-worn catalog of residential styles.

The media pitch in too. Thursday night on CNN, Anderson Cooper and other anchors focused relentlessly on the news that an arsonist may have set the Santiago fire in eastern Orange County. The Santiago fire destroyed 14 houses -- a tiny fraction of the total this week. By contrast, the Witch fire that roared through suburban developments in northern San Diego County, consuming more than 1,000 houses, was caused by downed power lines. The emphasis on possible crime suggested that the disaster could be pinned on a few rogue evildoers. But the vast majority of destroyed houses burned as a direct result of choices made by home builders, homeowners, politicians and planners about where to put new development. The culprit is us.

The truth is that most Southern California residents who move into fire-threatened hillside neighborhoods are not adventurous souls hoping to thumb their noses at convention and urban mores and carve out a life surrounded by nature. While houses near Lake Arrowhead and in certain canyons that burned this year are marked by real isolation, most are merely looking for spacious single-family residences that feel attractively adjacent to, rather than in the heart of, the hills and mountain ranges that divide the region's coastline from its deserts.

Adjacency to nature rather than full immersion in it has always been at the heart of the suburbs' appeal. The developers who create our version of it, particularly in the fastest growing parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, have been highly successful at giving their projects the air of the familiar mixed with a touch of unspoiled landscape.

Disasters, though, have a way of stripping away those signs of comfort and rather starkly revealing land-use patterns as well as the philosophies that underpin growth. The flooding in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina, for example, wiped out mostly suburban-style ranch houses that had been built slab-on-grade, without the raised foundations and other low-tech flood-protection mechanisms that once distinguished the city's houses.

There is a reason that the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans virtually never flood. They were built on naturally high ground, produced over the centuries by deposits of Mississippi River silt. And there is a reason that wildfires in Southern California prey mostly on subdivisions built in the last 50 years or so, when suburban expansion and faith in American know-how were at their height.

We can draw a final connection here, even if it is only a metaphorical one. The way that American home builders keep pushing out into new territory, developing parcels of land once considered unsafe for residential construction, is an architectural version of the way that banks and lenders have acted over the last decade, practically tossing money at borrowers once dismissed as too much of a credit risk. The goal in both cases is to maintain a pace of growth and expansion that is ultimately unsustainable.

The crisis in the credit markets, by pulling down the broader economy, has shined some needed light on predatory lending and slowed its spread. Though history suggests that we probably shouldn't hold our breath, perhaps the fires, by the sheer scale of their destruction, will have a similar effect on the way we build.


Lakewood Accountability Action Group™ LAAG | www.LAAG.us | Lakewood, CA
A California Non Profit Association | Demanding action and accountability from local government™r>

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