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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

After California’s most destructive fire season, a debate over where to rebuild homes and best policies to reduce future costs

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Doug Smith December 16 read full LA Times article here

After a destructive wildfire swept from Calabasas to Malibu in 1993, the head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy stood on a mountaintop on live TV and made a radical proposal. He called for a “three-strikes” rule to limit the number of times recovery funds could be spent to help rebuild a home destroyed by wildfire 

[Today] I think two strikes is enough and they ought to be bought out,” Edmiston said, after spending three days coordinating the conservancy’s crews on the Skirball, Rye and Creek fires.

….“I think what’s next is that every mayor, every town council and city planning board has to take this really seriously,” said Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “I would tell a zoning commission in Claremont or wherever, ‘Buy up the land before it gets built. And if a fire comes through, buy up the land so it won’t burn again.’ ”….

….“In determining how or why or when homes should be rebuilt after a fire, it helps to have science on where homes should or shouldn’t be placed,” said Alexandra Syphard, senior research scientist at the nonprofit Conservation Biology Institute. “The science isn’t fully there yet.”

The current standard for fire prediction is embodied in maps produced during the 2000s by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Largely based on vegetation and topography, the maps cover broad swaths of the state with gradations from moderate to very high fire hazard. In light of experience showing that wind-blown embers can carry fire into suburban areas, Cal Fire plans to revise the maps next year and will likely include even more neighborhoods….

Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, advocates holding local agencies financially responsible for fire losses of developments they approved. They should pay for all costs not covered by insurance and, if the owner rebuilds, all fire safety features, including exterior sprinkler systems….He favors methods to reverse the economic pressure, “everything from taking tracts of land at the urban periphery out of development, conservation easements. It might mean promoting higher insurance rates for homes built in high-risk areas such that the demand would go down.”

…Edmiston said he has tallied 531 proposed new housing units being considered by the cities of Los Angeles and Calabasas in very high fire hazard zones in the Santa Monica Mountains. “We’re not talking about low income,” Edmiston said. “We’re talking about $1.5-million-plus homes.”

He proposes a linkage between the right to build and the inevitable cost of firefighting and recovery. As a condition of approval, he said, the developer should establish a mechanism to require purchasers to pay for any increased fire protection that the property will require.

“We’re talking about the climate change paradigm of the Santa Monica Mountains,” Edmiston said. “We’ve got to protect ourselves so that the rest of the city and the rest of the county don’t have to pay for putting these multimillion-dollar houses right next to the risk.”

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