Why Do We Keep Building in Areas with High Fire Risk?

Last week was a brutal one for California. Fires have been blazing up and down the State. In Southern California the Woolsey Fire hit Los Angeles and Ventura counties, forcing evacuations in Malibu, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks. Lives have been lost. Homes have been burned.

In recent years these blazes have become more frequent and more destructive. And while climate change is certainly a factor, there’s another issue that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

We keep building in fire-prone areas. On November 14 the LA Times ran a piece by Bettina Boxall highlighting the fact that cities continue to approve projects in places that are at high risk for fires. Boxall quotes Char Miller, Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College.

“Why is it that at the county, city, town level, we have repeatedly green-lit development in areas that we know are fire zones?”

Good question.

Earlier this week, when everyone was wondering how long the fires would burn and what communities were at risk, I recalled a hearing I attended a couple years ago. In 2016 the City Planning Commission greenlighted a project called The Vineyards in Porter Ranch which was comprised of a shopping center, a hotel, office space and over 200 residential units. I wondered what had happened since, and did a search on the net. I found this story on Curbed saying that they’d broken ground in June 2017.

Huge Development Under Way in Porter Ranch

It seemed to me I’d heard about blazes threatening the Porter Ranch area. I wondered if the project site was at risk for fire, so I went to ZIMAS, the City’s zoning information site. Clicking on the parcel, I found that the City of LA recognizes it as a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone”.

PR Vineyard SCREENSHOT from ZIMAS CROPPED

So what does this actually mean? Does it mean development is prohibited? No. When you click on the words “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone”, a text box pops up containing this paragraph.

Lands designated by the City of Los Angeles Fire Department pursuant to Government Code 51178 that were identified and recommended to local agencies by the Director of Forestry and Fire Protection based on criteria that includes fuel loading, slope, fire weather, and other relevant factors. These areas must comply with the Brush Clearance Requirements of the Fire Code. The Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone (VHFHSZ) was first established in the City of Los Angeles in 1999 and replaced the older “Mountain Fire District” and “Buffer Zone.”

In other words, the only requirement is compliance with LAFC regulations regarding brush clearance. So is there really any danger from fires in Porter Ranch?

Actually, yeah, there is.

A search using the words “Porter Ranch Fire” turned up a lot of results. In August of this year there was a small fire that the LAFD quickly snuffed out.

PR Fire Brush from LAFD 180809 CROPPED

Porter Ranch Brush Fire Quickly Stopped from LAFD, August 9, 2018

Another small blaze broke out last December.

PR Fire Image from Patch 171205

Porter Ranch Blaze Knocked Down from Patch, December 5, 2017

NBC reported that 15 acres burned in 2016.

PR Fire from NBC 161018 CROPPED

Brush Fire Burns in Porter Ranch

And back in 2008 the Sesnon Fire, AKA the Porter Ranch Fire, burned over 22 square miles.

Sesnon Fire from Wikipedia

As the Woolsey Fire burned this last week, ABC reported that area residents were worried about their safety.

Strong Winds Put Surrounding Communities near Porter Ranch on Edge

I’d be worried, too. In spite of the fact that the City of LA recognizes this as an area at high risk for fires, the Department of City Planning (DCP) doesn’t seem to have had any problem with approving new construction there. In addition to 266 apartments, The Vineyards includes a hotel with 100 rooms and a Kaiser medical office building. And this is one of the last open tracts in an area that has seen rapid growth since the 90s. In 2008 the DCP estimated the population was around 30,000. I wonder how quickly they’ll be able to evacuate all those people if the area is threatened by fire? Might be especially difficult at rush hour. I’ve heard traffic on Rinaldi gets pretty bad.

As California’s changing climate leads to hotter temperatures and drier vegetation, experts predict fires will become more frequent and more destructive. Why do we keep building in areas that are at risk of burning? Why do we keep putting people in harm’s way?


PS

After putting up this post, I ran across an excellent article by Emily Guerin on the same subject. She asks a lot of good questions, and gets some disturbing answers. Check it out.

Why do we keep building houses in places that burn down?

One thought on “Why Do We Keep Building in Areas with High Fire Risk?

  1. I have been asking this question for years. Why are homes not built either underground or as concrete geodesic domes in this fire prone area? Also, why do people continue to build in areas below sea level? If gov’t is going to interfere in our lives, it seems these are issues that could use some regulation. When insurance companies have to deal with numerous claims, even people with no claims are impacted.

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