Californians are no stranger to fires. Usually, in farmlands or neighborhoods of higher elevation, these wildfires ruin everything in their path — from homes, cars, building structures, and even an entire neighborhood. What’s even worse is having no choice but to continue rebuilding in a fire zone.
Lack of Proper Housing
The housing crisis in California has been a problem that’s failed to see any resolution. In addition, communities are allowing homes to be built in straight-up fire hazard zones. When it comes to accommodating the housing crisis and finding a safe space to do so, challenges are at hand.
Refilling the Void
After enduring serious wildfires, communities are slowly attempting to rebuild their homes. Though a traumatic experience, many of these communities have no choice but to rebuild their homes and community in the same fire zone area where they lost it all.
A prime example is the town of Montecito near Santa Barbara County. Earlier this 2018, the Thomas Fire scorched over 281,000 acres nearby Montecito, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties. The aftermath of the fire not only damaged nearby neighborhoods but completely scorched all vegetation in the surrounding mountains and hillsides.
The Fire’s Comeback
The Thomas Fire caused natural vegetation like soil, plants, and other agriculture, to burn to a complete crisp. Soon after the Thomas fire, a mudslide engulfed a nearby town. The vegetation in the surrounding Ventura and Santa Barbara hills usually absorbs any incoming rainfall. Still, given the massive fire that recently burned everything in its path — this incoming storm was going to be different. Rather than the usual leaves or debris that absorb the rainfall, a heavy amount of rain was absorbed in all the loose ash, soot, and dirt leftover from the fire. The heavier it rained, the thicker the mud grew. Like the Thomas Fire, the Montecito mudslide destroyed everything it touched and even swept away entire structures. Unfortunately, the mudslide was so destructive that it claimed 17 individuals' lives and left another 17 unaccounted for.
$421 Million in Damages
Many of the affected neighbors didn’t have a flood or mudslide insurance. With little hope of recovering, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones felt otherwise. On January 29th, 2018, Jones sent a formal notice to insurers encouraging proper coverage for mudslide victims, regardless of policy. Knowing many Californians often don’t have mudslide, debris flow, or flood coverage on their policy, Jones wanted to stress the urgency in recovering to insurers. The overall amount of damages resulted in $421 million.
2017 was California’s hottest year. With hundreds of fires, an increased mortality rate, destruction rate, and loss of complete neighborhoods, it’s no telling when it will occur again. Whether it be global warming or human-caused, fires are a norm in California. Though many have lost their lives and property in these high-risk fire areas, why are developers still building on these lands?
Continuing to Build in Fire-Prone Areas
Simply put, developers keep building in fire areas because Californians keep paying for it, according to Bloomberg. With the housing epidemic on the rise, Californians still need a place to live. Where are those fire damage victims going to live? These demands have led local officials to issue permits for re-building in fire zones and even by exempting some building codes, allowing for even bigger homes to be built in these hazardous areas.
Fire Risks and Damages
Though Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones sent a notice to insurers to protect these fire damage victims, policyholders are still making the same decisions that initially put these tenants at risk. Due to 2017’s hottest year on record, insurers are fleeing these fire-prone communities. Some insurance companies have even decided to cancel policies due to the increased risk of more potential fires. With more than 2 million homes at risk, Governor Jerry Brown has claimed this condition is “normal” for California. With fire risks at a new norm, insurers have been canceling policies left and right.
Rebuilding in Fire Severity Zones
After 2017’s drastic chain of fires, some codes that maintain buildings and developments have been changed. To reduce the likelihood of structures catching fire, newer codes and restrictions have been placed. To prevent further fire damage, we can protect ourselves by adhering to the following two standards: There are over 31 million acres that are classified as “Fire Hazard Severity Zones” or “State Responsibility Areas.” These portions of land were given the name due to their high likelihood and history of catching fire. These areas are where the State has financial responsibility in aiding these wildfire areas.
Any design or construction for new structures/homes in these severity zones must follow the wildfire exposure protection codes. This means removing any flammable objects or vegetation, using material that is least likely to catch fire from burning embers, as well as full disclosure of the hazardous area when taking part in a real estate transfer. For more information, check out the California Department of Fire & Forestry’s information page. Before planning your next build, check whether or not your preferred area is in a high-risk fire severity zone.