Amid the drama generated here by airplanes, speeding fire engines, and evacuating residents, there is one underlying fact that fire experts say is worth noting and celebrating, no matter how much damage is being reported: Residents and town officials in California's increasingly populated rural-urban interface are getting much better at minimizing fire danger through more-effective laws, stricter enforcement, better education, and citizen cooperation.
"We've had three, once-a-century fires in the last seven years," says Terry McHale, spokesman for CDF Firefighters, the union that represents the rank-and-file firefighters in California. "But there has clearly been significant progress by residents and towns in implementing 'defensible space' laws," adds Mr. McHale, referring to the laws that define brush-clearance perimeters around existing structures.
"People used to insist on the rustic feel of trees close to their outdoor decks and the crunch of twigs under their feet, but now they really get it," he says.
After 17 fires ignited in 2003, which destroyed more land and more structures than any fire in US history, California lawmakers got busy writing legislation. Then-state Sen. Sheila Kuehl wrote several provisions that began going into effect later that year. After 2007 produced another megafire, another round of legislation took place.
Now, California building codes ban wood siding and wood-shake roofs from new construction in fire-prone areas. Residents in existing homes are also replacing wood shingles with cement tile and wood siding with stucco, and they're rebuilding wood porches to be more fireproof. And entire developments have adopted so-called shelter-in-place construction (cement-tile roofs, stucco walls, and sprinkler systems).
Legislation also specifies how much open space must surround structures, and it mandates fines that offending homeowners must pay – from $50 to $200. Such policies have been accompanied by better enforcement and education.
"Residents have now become much more aware of the warning schedules and how much time they have to do their clearances," says inspector Steve Zermeno of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "They know that if they don't do it, we will do it for them and send them a bill. They know there is a point when there are no longer any ifs, ands, or buts accepted, and they are OK with the process."
In interviews, residents near the fire areas say the increased number of major fires in southern California in recent years has been a huge motivation. So have the increased insurance costs for not complying.
With each round of fires, some residents note, they're the subject of intense media coverage, and they receive phone calls from friends and relatives all over the United States. They even get calls from hecklers wondering why residents have built homes in these fire-prone areas.
"People give us grief on the phones as if we are not watching the same devastation and don't see our own neighbors being put out of their homes," says a man in a white surgical mask raking brush from around his ranch-style home on Loma Alta Drive, just a few hundred yards from the fire line. "Insurance companies won't insure you with trees and brush close to your homes. And we are already highly motivated to keep these fire dangers at bay because our whole lives and dreams are contained in these homes."
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