California's blazing density problem

The state wrestles with age-old issues of growth amid some of the worst fires in history.

The arc of fires that has been moving with virtual impunity across southern California is straining the state's fire-fighting capacity and raising age-old questions about the density of development in exurban areas.

With hundreds of homes destroyed in what has now become one of the worst series of wild fires in California's history, local officials are already mulling some familiar lessons: how to improve building codes, enforcement, and containment technology. But beneath this reexamination looms a more basic question: Is California overbuilt for its geography?

Across the West, similar critiques now surface every time there is a devastating fire. As more residents move into semiwilderness areas on the fringe of cities, the ability of firefighters to protect homes - even with more and more stringent fire codes - is becoming increasingly difficult.

Yet the challenges in southern California are particularly acute. By late October, the region has usually gone through at least five months without rain, turning area scrub into kindling. Then come the Santa Ana winds, which start in the mountains of Nevada and Utah and blow across the high desert like a hair dryer. Add in the roof peak by jowl housing developments, and you've got a potential nightmare for any fire crew.

Yet Californians seem more willing than most to challenge the elements. Almost reflexively, they continue to build homes amid the very grasses, flint-dry chapparal, oily undergrowth, and wind-sucking canyons that periodically turn hillsides into furnaces.

"The people who gravitate to California are, far more than those going elsewhere, people on personal quests, who fly in the face of other's doubts and attempts to straitjacket them," says Tracy Nini, who runs a head-hunting firm in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "They have come here to answer their highest dreams and aspirations, to seek fame and fortune, to be pioneers. They are not people who would be happy living in Middletown, Ohio."

In other words, their motivation may be as obvious as it is defiant: a combination of the California state of mind, geography, and weather. Perhaps better put, it is the coincidence of the state's natural beauty, year-round sunshine, outdoor aesthetic - and the penchant for marching to a different drummer. Like dwellers in hurricane-prone states and the Midwest's "Tornado Alley," residents simply feel that fire threats are part of the natural equation and life choice of being here.

Indeed, one insurance company now says fully half of the state's residential structures are at risk of the same kind of neighborhood-and-freeway hopping fires that have claimed hundreds of homes in recent days.

Take Tanya Thomas. As she watched coverage of the fires this week, the Laguna Beach resident recalled the horrors in her own community 10 years ago: walls of flame racing up residential streets, devouring homes, blackening skies, and forcing evacuations of entire neighborhoods.

A decade later, the retail manager has another sobering observation. "To be honest with you, my neighborhood probably has the exact same fire hazards here today that we had then and that we had 20 years before that when fires wiped out these neighborhoods ... but I would never dream of moving out."

Such resolve has been visible in recent days by owners scrambling to save their residences from nearby fires. Donning face masks and Kevlar blankets to resist heat, they have been hosing down their roofs and siding, hatcheting underbrush, and spraying swimming-pool water down hillsides as fire retardant.

Even by southern California standards, the latest fires have been unusually destructive. By early Monday, at least six stubborn blazes were burning from the Mexican border to the suburbs north of Los Angeles, destroying more than 800 homes and charring some 470 square miles of land. More than a dozen people have perished, making it the deadliest series of fires since the 1991 conflagration in the hills of Oakland, Calif., that killed 25 and destroyed 3,200 structures.

A state of emergency has been declared in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties. Early Monday, at least 30,000 homes remained in danger near San Diego alone. In the land where it rarely ever snows, residents had to cope with an eerie dusting of ash, as if from a hiccup by Vesuvius.

Despite all the damage, many local residents are trying to learn what they can to prevent future tragedies. Few seem inclined to move. "People don't move blindly into these fire-prone communities," says Robert Spano, a sound engineer for Universal Studios who used to live in Topanga Canyon, just outside Los Angeles. "They're not stupid. They take care to be very conscientious about brush abatement and fire regulations ... but they are not going to move somewhere else because of fire hazards."

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