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:

Art installation highlights plastic bottle use

CULVER CITY, California – Ever wonder how many recyclable bottles and cans you consume every year, or what it might look like if you tossed them all into one big pile?

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI), based in Culver City, California, took the latest statistics on how many beverages people buy in plastic bottles, aluminum cans and paper cartons and turned it all into a real-world infographic on Hermosa Beach in California. The numbers are based on data they regularly collect. Their last comprehensive report was in 2013, Bottled Up.

The result, which took five hours to build, was this chart in the sand that looks like two dolphins.

The artwork is made up of 839 containers. According to CRI that’s how many are used each year by the average American.

The numbers depicted represent a grim reality: only 32 percent of these containers are recycled on average, which means 68 percent go to waste.

CRI did the same thing last year, and the numbers are only getting worse. In 2017, the organization reported a recycling rate of 37 percent.

The percentage that are recycled has fallen consistently over the past 25 years, peaking at more than half in 1992 and falling to 32 percent now, according to CRI president Susan Collins.

Why is all this of concern? A lot of plastics end up in the ocean.

We dump 8 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean every year, enough to equal a third the weight of all the fish in the sea in just a decade, according to CRI, which cited the Ocean Conservancy.

If there’s any consolation, it could be this: those of you in California are actually really good at recycling compared to other states. That’s thanks at least in part to the state’s long-standing recycling program that uses the California Redemption Value, or CRV, as a public incentive. That’s the program that allows Californians to get 5 to 10 cents back when recycling a container.

At least nine other states have similar container deposit laws, sometimes called “bottle bills,” on the books. Collins calls these laws “the rockstars of recycling.” Those states include Hawaii, Oregon, California, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The states that have those laws often track the number of beverage containers that are recycled.

Los Angeles seeks sustainable solutions for homeless

LOS ANGELES – About 60,000 people are homeless in LA. Experts say it’s the worst city in the nation when it comes to homelessness. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has declared homelessness in this city a state of emergency.

Garcetti says providing sustainable housing is the best solution.

“Housing to me is the prism through which we refract almost every other issue. So if we’re talking about sustaining life in Los Angeles and California, traffic, the air we breathe, the poverty people experience, homelessness, even things like public safety, they’re all related to whether or not we can house people and house them in decent, clean, sustainable, affordable housing,” Garcetti says.

LA’s Skid Row has about 4,000 homeless people living in tents in a 50-block radius.

Many of them are stuck here with no way out.

These tents and the broken concrete often serve as their living room, dining room and kitchen. On a good day, they have water, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

Mickey Gagnon, 53, lives on the streets.

“My husband and I came here from Las Vegas thinking that we had an apartment,” Gagnon says. “And when we got here, it was just way too expensive to live.”

She tried to find space in a shelter, but there was no room. And she worries about safety. “Someone who could be your friend at six o’clock at night … then at midnight, kill you cause they know you have a couple dollars in your pocket.”

Gagnon’s mom, who had been paying their rent, died at 48, and things fell apart. That’s when Gagnon first become homeless.

She says she struggles with deep depression, “There’s still not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could die and be with her.”

Jackie Vorhauer is with Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit developer that’s served the area for about 30 years. Vorhauer works to educate the public on homelessness and sustainable housing solutions. The nonprofit builds affordable permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

The agency also provides on-site services such as case management, life-skills training, counseling, health clinics and mental health help.

Three decades ago, Skid Row Housing Trust started buying many of the old and dilapidated buildings in and around downtown LA to save them and turn them into affordable housing.

“A more sustainable model is to do more permanent supportive housing, which is supplying homes for people but with all the services on site that they need to not only break the cycle of homelessness but to try to address issues where we can break the cycle of poverty,” Vorhauer says.

She says they can address mental, physical and emotional illness, and people can be more self-reliant. The project has 26 buildings, home to nearly 2,000 people.

“It’s not just a Band-Aid for the time being,” she says. “This is a long term sustainable solution.”

So if this is the solution, why aren’t there more of these sustainable models throughout Los Angeles? The answer is complicated.

Stephanie Pincetl, a sustainability scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, and she also serves as the director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities.

“More and more people in many cities across the world are becoming homeless because the price of real estate has gotten so high,” she says. “That’s an enormous sustainability question for cities today because people need to live in places where there’s employment, where there’s activity, where their children can go to school, where there’s good services and that happens to be largely in cities.”

Rob Jernigan, an architect and regional manager of design firm Gensler, said the issue goes back to supply.

The company has been working with places such as the Skid Row Housing Trust to try and design and build sustainable housing for the homeless. Jernigan says this has not been an easy task, partly because it takes so long to deal with regulations, including environmental impact statements.

“With regards to housing, what that’s doing is that’s really slowing down the supply and increasing the cost,” Jernigan says. “Developers are required in this state to actually manage or mitigate the different impacts that that project may have so they’re not passing it on to the typical citizen. They really are bearing those costs.”

Garcetti says the city plans to build 100,000 units of housing just in LA.