Population boom in West putting humans closer to devastating wildfires

DENVER – Nearly half the population of the West lives in an area with potential for wildfire danger. And both the risk of fire and the population in harm’s way are rising in this fast-growing part of the nation.

Eighty-four percent of the risk area has not yet been developed.

“Which means the problem is going to get much worse,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of the nonprofit Headwaters Economic Group, a Montana research organization studying wildfire risk and community development.

Since 2000, more than 1 million people in Colorado, 3 million in Arizona and 21 million in California have been threatened by wildfires that came within 10 or fewer miles of their towns, according to data from Headwaters.

The organization is one of several tracking the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, an area where man-made structures exist near or within flammable vegetation.

The nation watched in horror in November as the Camp Fire east of Chico became the deadliest in California history, with more than 80 lives lost and others still missing when the fire was finally contained after burning nearly a month. About 19,000 buildings were destroyed.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Nov. 10, President Donald Trump tweeted about the Camp Fire and several others burning in California: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Firefighters work to keep the Woolsey fire from reaching this house near Calabasas, Calif., in November. The house was one of few in the neighborhood that did not burn. (Photo courtesy Steve Purcell)

Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service, said firefighters often suppress natural forest fires to protect homes and people, but over time, that has disrupted the natural fire ecosystem, causing thicker vegetation and a build-up of fuels in forest areas.

It is important to invest in the health of the forest by removing overcrowded fuels, he said. But that can be difficult to do.

“We can’t let fires burn with overcrowded forests where people live,” Lester said. “It’s just too dangerous.”

In northern Arizona, a multi-government agency called the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, is thinning ponderosa forests from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico line in hopes of preventing devastating fires.

4FRI, which encompasses four national forests in that area, got its start in 2009 with federal funding, after years of historically large and devastating wildfires in northern Arizona.

Dick Fleishman helps manage tree-thinning operations for 4FRI. He points to one side of a fence where privately-owned land hasn’t been thinned. On the other, is a 4FRI area of large grassy expanses and distinct clumps of older trees.

“Here with the grassy openings, the fire would get on the ground and burn as a surface fire,” he said.

That’s an important distinction: Surface fires burn low and slow, while a fire in tree branches burns hot and fast – and is highly destructive.

Fleishman said the forests closest to where people live are the highest priority for restoration. Because not only would a wildfire burn trees, it also burns soil – which makes conditions ripe for catastrophic floods in the rainy seasons.

Near Flagstaff, homes are going up right next to national forest land. The space is ideal for nature-lovers, but nature needs to be managed. Especially when fire is as critical to the land as water and air, said Brienne Petit, 4FRI spokeswoman.

“We want more fire that behaves the way it actually should,” Petit said. “These forests need fire to survive.”

Arizona’s biggest wildfires, Rodeo-Chediski in 2002 and Wallow in 2011, burned for weeks and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Part of that damage was to the water supply because the fires burned in the watershed.

Voters in Flagstaff passed a $10 million bond five years ago to help. But that alone isn’t going to be enough to treat the amount of forest covering the city’s watershed.

Arizona Game & Fish Department coordinator Steve Rosenstock said that ballot initiative is just one way to move the forest restoration forward.

“That is a very, very unique thing, and in these times when budgets are tight having that other sort of funding could make the difference between a project happening or not,” Rosenstock said.

Brent Poindexter is a volunteer firefighter in Colorado who moved into a WUI area near the New Mexico state line. He said he knew the risk of living among thick pines when he moved into Forbes Park neighborhood in Costilla County about two years ago, but the tranquility of the place moved him to settle there anyway.

“It was by choice, 100 percent, and it was beautiful here,” he said. “But you know that going in, that’s a risk you take.”

Poindexter said he knew it was probably just a matter of time before fire erupted in his neighborhood. He was right.

In July, the Spring Creek Fire, the third largest in Colorado history, charred more than 100,000 acres of land and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, including Poindexter’s. His three-level log house was reduced to ash and rubble.

“If there wasn’t these houses here, we would obviously just let it burn, and let Mother Nature do its thing,” said Poindexter, who volunteered to fight the blaze.

If more fires could burn naturally, there would be some benefits to the forests, experts say.

“Wildfire is a really interesting sustainability issue,” said Alex Hall, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the UCLA. He also directs the Center for Climate Science.

Fires can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter. They also can help the ecosystem balance because they destroy diseased plants and dangerous insects, such as the bark beetle that has decimated millions of acres of forest in the West over the past decade.

And the fires even regenerate seeds for trees that require intense heat every few years to sprout.

“Wildfire is a natural part of our landscapes, and our natural landscapes actually need wildfire,” Hall said.

But Western wildfires have been getting more dangerous and deadly. And the influx of population into the WUI, combined with the effects of climate change, mean those trends are likely to continue.

“Greenhouse gases trap heat, and that has led to a steady warming of the planet that has been accelerating in recent decades,” Hall said. “Fires are driven by dry and hot winds, and when winds become hotter and drier, that leads to greater fire risk.”

Climate change also increases the swings between very wet and dry years, putting more vegetation at fire risk, he said.

“We’re beginning to see the climate-change signal emerge certainly in the climate record, and then at the same time the fires are also becoming unprecedented,” Hall said. “We’re seeing fires that are setting records in terms of their size and their intensity.”

Reporters Lori Jane Gliha of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Casey Kuhn of KJZZ in Phoenix and David Nazar of PBS SoCal in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

New houses, built to fire code, burned down anyway in Southern California’s 2017 Thomas Fire

LOS ANGELES – California’s building codes are not keeping up with the severe, wind-driven wildfires that are becoming the norm.

Ten years ago, the state passed strict new standards for homes built in high fire-risk areas. But even homes built to those standards were destroyed in last December’s Thomas Fire. Now, homes are being rebuilt in the same places, under the same codes.

In the Ventura Foothills, about an hour northwest of Malibu, four of the nine homes on Andorra Lane burned down in the Thomas Fire. Almost no one expected it. After all, the homes were brand new. They were surrounded by dozens of other homes. And most importantly, they met the state’s building codes for areas at heightened risk of wildfires.

Nancy Bohman, who lives in one of the Andorra Lane homes that survived the fire, said she was “totally shocked. Totally blown away, ’cause look,” she said, slapping the sturdy outside wall of her house. “It’s stucco and a concrete roof.”

Where you build your home is more important than what materials you build it from, says fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard with the Conservation Biology Institute. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman/KPCC).

Very high fire-hazard zones

“Almost no one” expected homes on Andorra Lane to burn down, but at least one agency did: CalFire.

Andorra Lane is tucked into a fold of the foothills above Ventura, and the entire nine-home subdivision is in a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” That’s a technical term created by CalFire, and it applies to neighborhoods on the edge of undeveloped land, “the wildland urban interface” where severe wildfires are likely. That area is also known as the WUI for wild urban interface.

The term is important because, since 2008, all homes built in these zones have had to meet strict building codes designed to prevent them from catching on fire. They must have fire resistant roofs and siding; fine mesh screen on attic vents to keep embers out; decks and patios made of non-flammable material, and heat-resistant windows.

Built in 2016, the houses on Andorra Lane had all of those things. They were supposed to have a better chance of surviving a wildfire than older homes without those protective features.

“Nobody ever reads the fine print”

When the first residents of Andorra Lane moved into their houses in 2016 and ’17, few realized their homes were in a risky place. But buried in their closing documents was a small disclosure, telling them they were moving into a “very high fire-hazard severity zone.”

“We flipped through hundreds of pages; I’m sure nobody ever reads the fine print,” said Phil Azer, one of the four burned-out homeowners on Andorra Lane. “I think I was probably more concerned about earthquakes.”



His neighbors had similar experiences: Only one recalled seeing the fine print.

“I don’t think (the real estate agent) ever actually said, ‘Hey, do you realize you’re on a flood or fire zone, or anything like that?'” Bohman said.

The developer, Williams Homes, declined to comment.

Why did the houses burn?

Ventura City Fire Marshal Joe Morelli thinks topography played a role. The narrow valley that Andorra Lane sits in may have acted as a wind tunnel, funneling embers toward the neighborhood.

“Really what we had was something like a blowtorch going through our city,” Morelli said. “And even with the fire-resistant construction standards you can still have loss. They’re not fireproof standards.”

Researchers who study how houses burn say embers are to blame, not walls of flame.

When embers land on ornamental mulch, pine needles built up at the base of a wall or wooden deck furniture, they smolder. And those little fires can eventually ignite the house itself, even a fire-resistant house, especially if no one is there to put them out, as is usually the case in an evacuation zone during a mega-fire.

California wildland fire codes may also have weaknesses, Morelli said. They don’t cover wooden sheds, carports or backyard play structures, which can ignite, sending embers towards the house. Nor do they cover skylights that open outward. And garage doors aren’t as fire-resistant as they could be, meaning embers can get sucked underneath them, igniting whatever is inside.

Being new, the houses on Andorra Lane were likely some of the most fire-resistant in Ventura. But many of the older houses that burned in the Thomas Fire also had some fire-resistant features.

According to CalFire data, 80 percent of houses destroyed in the Thomas Fire had fire-resistant exteriors and 90 percent had fire-resistant roofs.

It’s where you build, not what you build with

To fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard with the Conservation Biology Institute, it’s becoming increasingly clear that houses built in risky places are impossible to fireproof.

“You can make a big difference in increasing the potential safety of your house, but you can’t guarantee that it’s not going to burn,” she said.

Her research has found that where you build your house, not what it’s made of, is the biggest factor in determining whether it will burn.

But city and state officials are reluctant to do anything that would increase the cost of new housing. Yolanda Bundy, the chief building official with the city of Ventura, said she’s just not focused on changing local building codes or overhauling land use planning at the moment.

“Right now, all the efforts are concentrated on helping people rebuild their homes, not to create more rules or regulations or more processes,” she told KPCC earlier this year.

The burned homes in “very high fire-hazards severity zones” will be rebuilt according to the newest codes, which Bundy still considers a big improvement because nearly all 777 of them were constructed before 2008.

Statewide, new building codes are adopted every three years. That means lessons learned from the Thomas Fire will not be incorporated into the next round of code changes.

“We’re constantly playing catch up,” said Pete Muñoa, CalFire’s deputy chief of land use planning. “We’re trying to be proactive to see how we can make homes more survivable by adding additional code requirements.”

But, he said, regulators also have to balance safety with cost.

“Depending on the pushback we get from industry, we may or may not be successful in getting codes that we believe are going to be effective.”

Many of the homes destroyed on Andorra Lane were ignited by embers, not by walls of flame, experts say. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman/KPCC)

What you can do

So, what should you do if you live in a high fire risk area, or are rebuilding your house in one? Focus on the area 30 feet around your house, said Tom Welle with the National Fire Protection Association.

The first five feet out from your foundation should be nearly bare, or only covered with non-flammable plants or landscaping. Beyond that, Welle said to “think about where leaves and debris just pile up because of wind. That’s where embers are going to go.”

Keeping your house from igniting is really important, Morellis said, because nearly 90 percent of houses that ignite, even brand new houses, are destroyed.


This piece is part of a multimedia series from Elemental: Fire in the Neighborhood. You can see a television show about fires in the wild urban interface here:

Profits and flames: Private firefighters an option for the wealthy

The fire season across the West has been brutal. In California, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire together left more than 88 dead. The two fires burned more than 15,000 structures and nearly 200 people are still missing. Huge fires in Nevada have burned hundreds of thousands of acres. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico have all been affected.

Amidst the flames, a trend has emerged – a two-tiered system of private firefighting resources for those who can afford them, and a system stretched thin for those who can’t.

Troy Kurth is the CEO of the private firefighting company Rocky Mountain Fire, near Missoula, Montana. Members of his crew have the same baseline certifications as federal firefighters.

His crew works out of a barn with a sign on the door that says “STALLION Do Not Enter.” Kurth used to run 15 stallions each season before he got into the firefighting business.

“I decided to leave those (signs) up,” he said, after “we converted this horse barn into our fire cache and shop.”

And he says those firefighting services are increasingly in demand. In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2 billion suppressing fires.

Starting in the 1980s, the Forest Service began facing tighter budgets and more destructive fires, so it started contracting with private firefighting companies to help out. More recently, the private insurance industry got involved and started offering private firefighting services on its home policies.

David Torgerson is president of Wildfire Defense Systems in Bozeman, Montana – the largest private firefighting group in the country.

“This contribution from the insurance industry is here to stay,” he said. “It’s become the new norm.”

Torgerson said his company now is bigger than many state firefighting agencies. Like other private companies, Wildfire Defense Systems contracts with state and federal government, but Torgerson now also is working with about a dozen private insurers. Since 2008, he said, his crews have responded to more than 550 wildfires that threatened thousands of private properties. In addition, the company helps fire-proof properties before blazes hit homes.

He said most of the homes have been average value, not million-dollar mansions. Either way, he said, the more resources for these raging fires the better.

“Quietly in the background, these insurer programs have been growing and contributing in a strong way and creating better results to the extent possible and contributing to these incidents,” Torgerson said. “It’s really a win-win. It’s a partial solution.”

But how easy is it to get that coverage for the average homeowner? That’s not clear.

Insurance giant AIG describes its “Wildfire Protection Unit” as a “complimentary service.” However, according to its website, those services are only available to its Private Client Group, which is “custom-designed for high-end properties.”

AIG did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Eric Samansky is with Chubb, another insurance provider that offers this service to all clients in fire-prone areas in 18 states.

“It’s complimentary, so if you are a policyholder within those states, all you need to do is enroll,” he said.

But there may be another problem with any kind of insurance in some areas.

“The affordability issue is one that is growing here in California. We’re continuing to see prices increase,” said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance.

Her state has more homes in fire-prone areas than any other. And homeowners there are having more and more trouble securing coverage of any kind due to increasing premiums, Kincaid said.

Carl Seielstad has been studying fire trends for decades as an associate professor of fire science and management at the University of Montana; he’s also a fire-incident commander.

This trend toward private firefighting is a reflection of our society, he said.

“I mean that’s capitalism, right?” he asked. “That if you have assets to be protected and you can pay for protection, that you would pay extra for the protection that you get.”

Whether it’s fair and equitable is more complicated. For one, nobody’s keeping track of the industry and who’s using the services. However, “even the perception that fire management plays favorites – whether it’s fair or not – erodes confidence in the fire management enterprise,” Seielstad said.

And he’s not just worried about the insurance industry protecting individual properties. It’s also the private money flowing into state and federal fire suppression.

“When does private enterprise start dictating how fire management gets done?” he wondered.

Fire and forest management already is an ecological and political issue, Seielstad said, so what happens when profit comes into play, too?

The private firefighting industry continues to grow. There are more than 150 companies employing more than 12,000 crew members, the industry’s trade group said.


This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Southern California fires: 2 dead, hundreds of homes destroyed, nearly 100,000 acres burned

The wildfires sweeping across Southern California have destroyed hundreds of homes, killed at least two people and injured several more, and ravaged beloved landmarks and park space.

Here’s the latest on the Woolsey Fire burning near Malibu as of Tuesday.

Thousands of firefighters remain on the line Tuesday, working to contain the fire, which has burned more than 96,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties since Thursday afternoon.

The fire started north of Bell Canyon and rapidly moved south through the Santa Monica Mountains, jumping the 101 Freeway and tearing through hillside communities in Malibu, eventually burning all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Two people were found dead Friday afternoon in the 3300 block of Mullholland Highway, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Investigators believe the driver may have become disoriented while escaping the area, but the investigation is ongoing.

The National Weather Service extended its Red Flag warning through 5 p.m. Wednesday for Ventura County, the mountains of Los Angeles County and the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. The warning for the LA coast from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills remains in effect until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

On Monday night, fire officials said the Woolsey Fire had scorched more than 80 percent of the total national park lands in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

National Park Service officials responded to a flood of inquiries about the condition of wildlife in the mountains, saying the home range of four local bobcats have been completely destroyed. They added that some of the mountain lions biologists are tracking have not yet been accounted for, but said that wasn’t out of the ordinary given how the cougars are monitored.

President Donald Trump meanwhile said he had approved an expedited request for a Major Disaster Declaration, which would open up federal funds to assist fire-ravaged California.

“Wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on,” Trump tweeted Monday. “I am with you all the way. God Bless all of the victims and families affected.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced several evacuation orders will be lifted at 9 a.m.

Meanwhile, the community of Topanga and the city of Malibu remain under evacuation orders.


BY THE NUMBERS

  • 96,314 acres burned
  • Containment at 35%
  • 2 deaths reported
  • 3 firefighters injured
  • At least 435 structures destroyed and 35 damaged
  • 57,000 structures threatened
  • About 3,590 firefighting personnel on scene


ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND RESOURCES

For the latest information straight from local emergency officials, including evacuation orders, road closures, evacuation centers and animal shelters, check the following sites and social media accounts:

Cal Fire Incident Information
Cal Fire on Twitter
Los Angeles County Emergency Information
Ventura County Emergency Information
Los Angeles County Fire Public Information Officer on Twitter
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Twitter
Ventura County Fire Public Information Officer on Twitter
The National Weather Service Los Angeles on Twitter

OTHER FIRE COVERAGE FROM LAist

How To Keep Yourself Safe From Wildfire Smoke (And Where To Get An N95 Mask)
Man Uses Boat To Rescue His Grandparents From Woolsey Fire In Malibu
Malibu Fire Victims Share Their Stories
These Images Show How Devastating The Woolsey Fire Is
How You Can Help Those Affected By The Southern California Wildfires
What To Do — And Not Do — When You Get Home After A Wildfire
Paramount Ranch’s Iconic Western-Themed Set Is No More

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

It’s a real-estate paradox: The most desirable places to live also are among the most susceptible to wildfires.

Mansions in the Santa Monica Mountains, tiny cabins tucked into the Angeles National Forest and homes at the edges of subdivisions all are beautiful because they’re surrounded by undeveloped land. But that land is a tinderbox.

Every year in California, there seems to be a bigger, crazier, more destructive wildfire. But every year, new houses go up in their path. And it’s not just some houses, but thousands of houses — more than 85,000 new houses in high fire risk areas in Los Angeles County alone, from 1990 to 2010.

Shouldn’t we know better by now? Why do we keep building houses in places that are likely to burn? I’ve reported countless wildfires over the years and this question continues to come up.

To answer it, I examined a housing development proposed for an undeveloped swath of land in Orange County north of Yorba Linda. Esperanza Hills is a fancy development: 340 multimillion-dollar homes on a gated, dead-end street.

It definitely fits the definition of high-risk – 10 years ago, a wildfire completely scorched the land Esperanza Hills would be built on. And Cal Fire – the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – calls the entire site a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” a wonky term for an area that’s likely to burn again in the next 30 to 50 years.

That matters because fire ecologists say where – and not how – you build your house is the most important factor in determining whether it will burn.

An artist’s rendering of the entrance to Esperanza Hills, a high-end development proposed for a high fire risk area north of Yorba Linda, Calif. (Courtesy Yorba Linda Estates LLC via Orange County Board of Supervisors)
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“There are many cases where you can do everything right, but if you’re in a very risky location, your house can burn down,” said fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard, who has been studying wildfires for 20 years.

Building with modern, fire-resistant materials, clearing 100 feet or more of brush from around your house — those things can help, but if you put your house in a fire-prone place, Syphard says, such measures are mere Band-Aids.

‘THE MOST DANGEROUS SITE YOU COULD PICK’

On Nov. 15, 2008, a small brush fire started near California State Route 91, which lies in a corridor for Santa Ana winds. The fire raced west, connected with another blaze and torched the entire Esperanza Hills site before moving south into Yorba Linda and burning 381 homes. The Freeway Complex Fire was one of the most destructive in Orange County history.

The evacuation was chaotic, recalls Ed Schumann, who was among those who lost their homes. Streets were gridlocked. Kids were running down the sidewalks with their pets. At one point, a teenage boy got out of his car to direct traffic because no one else was doing it.

To Schumann and other Yorba Linda residents, the idea of adding 340 houses and residents and vehicles to that mess is frightening.

“Evacuating that many more people with the same infrastructure, it’s a scary thought,” he said.

It’s why Kevin Johnson, a lawyer for one of the environmental groups that sued over the Esperanza Hills project, delaying it for years, calls the location “probably the most dangerous site in Southern California you could pick to put 340 new families into.”

MEET THE DEVELOPER

So, why would anyone want to build in such a risky place? I reached out to the developer behind the project, Douglas Wymore.

He has his reasons. First, he believes he can build these houses, on this site, safely.

“I disagree with somebody that just comes in and says, ‘Oh, anytime that you put something next to an open-space area that’s a very high fire (hazard) zone, you can’t protect it,’” he said. “I think the bottom line is you can mitigate it, you can protect it.”

And Wymore is doing a lot to protect it. All the houses will be “hardened” – in other words, built using fire-resistant materials as required by state building code, including sprinklers in the attic.

He’s planning at least 170 feet of defensible space around the homes. There will be two on-site water tanks for firefighting. And two entrances, one for emergencies, one for everyday use (local residents say this is insufficient, and point to the multiple tight turns on the main entrance, but Wymore is doing what is required under the county’s fire standards).

Second, by building modern, fire-resistant homes in the path of a wildfire, Wymore believes he is protecting everyone else in the area whose houses may not be up to the latest building codes. His project, he contends, will act as a fire buffer for older, more flammable homes.

And third, he says, people want to live here.

“The bottom line is, there’s a demand for people that want to live in those areas for obvious reasons,” Wymore said. “And so if you’re going to take on the task of satisfying that demand and building a project, I think you have a responsibility to make sure you do what’s necessary to make your development safe.”

MONEY MONEY MONEY

That’s why the developer wants to build. But given the obvious risks, why would the Orange County Board of Supervisors approve this project?

Well, to start, it will generate $8.25 million a year in property taxes. And since voters passed Proposition 13 in California in 1978, which limited how much property tax bills can go up each year, cities and counties haven’t seen their tax revenue increase as housing values rise.

“Prop 13 handcuffs local jurisdictions in finding additional revenue,” said Howard Penn, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League. “They can raise sales tax or build more homes. There’s not a lot of ways to get more revenue.”

It’s also worth mentioning that since 2011, Wymore has donated nearly $50,000 to the re-election campaigns of several members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, none of whom would talk to me for this story.

Wymore was frank about why: “If you put political donations in, whether those people agree with you or don’t agree with you, they will at least give you an opportunity to sit down with them and listen. Which maybe they would and maybe they wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Melanie Schlotterbeck, a consultant for the non-profit Hills for Everyone, shows the history of fires in the Yorba Linda area. (Photo by James Bernal for KPCC)

THE DECIDERS

Although none of the Orange County supervisors wanted to talk, you can get a pretty good sense of why most of them support it from things they said at previous public meetings about the development. One big reason is the classic private property rights argument: Wymore owns the land, and he should be able to develop it as he sees fit.

“I don’t have any reason to now deprive someone of the right to use their property,” Chairman Andrew Do said at a May 2017 meeting.

Another big reason? The fire department had given Esperanza Hills the green light.

“If the fire department is satisfied, I’m not inclined to argue with them. I’m not a fireman,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson said.

BUT WHY WAS THE FIRE DEPARTMENT SATISFIED?

Well, according to deputy fire marshal Timothy Kerbrat of the Orange County Fire Authority, the preliminary plans for Esperanza Hills met all the state and local requirements for building in a high-risk area.

“Do they have access, do they have water, do they have defensible space, do they have hardened structures that they can protect? Are all those things occuring? And in the Esperanza project, that’s the things that I’m seeing. That it’s occurring,” he said.

Although the supervisors approved the project in May 2017, an Orange County environmental group sued and a judge overturned the approval, which is why Esperanza Hills was back in front of supervisors again on Sept. 25. And, despite continued opposition from some homeowners, the board approved the project 4-1 – prompting one homeowner to shout, “See you in court!”

WHO PAYS? WE PAY

There’s another factor here: The Orange County Fire Authority will get just more than $1 million a year in revenue from the Esperanza Hills project.

And if a large wildfire breaks out, the agency likely won’t have to spend much of its own money to protect this neighborhood. That’s because state and federal agencies largely reimburse local fire departments for the costs of firefighting.

Back in 2008, for example, the Orange County Fire Authority spent $2.3 million fighting the Freeway Complex Fire, but 94 percent of those costs were reimbursed.

“The irony is that we, as taxpayers, are paying for the protection of homes that are built in high-risk areas,” said Kimiko Barrett, a researcher at the Montana-based think tank Headwaters Economics.

You read that right: When a big fire breaks out and threatens houses built in risky places, you and I are the ones picking up the bill.

Kerbrat, the deputy fire marshal, staunchly denies that money or firefighting costs play any role in approving developments.

“I’ve never heard firefighters, or a fire agency, talk in that manner,” he said. “It’s not in our thought process. We don’t think of this as a business, for profit.”

A MORAL HAZARD

Barrett, however, calls the situation a moral hazard.

“The consequences actually aren’t borne by the people who are approving these developments,” she said.

And it’s not just Barretts theory: The Office of Inspector General agreed with that assessment in a 2006 report.

“If state and local agencies became more financially responsible for (wildland-urban interface) protection, it would likely encourage these agencies to more actively implement land use regulations that minimize risk to people and structures from wildfire,” they wrote.

But until this case of misaligned incentives changes, Barrett says we’re going to keep building in risky areas. Nearly 1 million new houses in California could be built in these areas before 2050.

This story is part of an Elemental series “Fire in the Neighborhood” about fire danger in cities and surrounding areas.