Lynne Plambeck | Housing in Fire Hazard Areas


By Lynne Plambeck

President, SCOPE

SCOPE and its volunteers have long opposed approving housing developments in high-fire-hazard areas with limited access.

We testified against the approval of the Adlin project at the far western end of Pico Canyon out of concern that a traffic jam on this narrow road caused by evacuating existing neighborhoods and the Pico Canyon Elementary School would dangerously delay rapid evacuation of the future Adlin residents.

These concerns were raised after the 2016 Sage fire, the most recent of many fires in the area, which required the evacuation of more than 2,000 people and luckily did NOT occur when the elementary school was in session.

We opposed the Lyon’s Canyon Ranch project (west of Interstate 5 in the Newhall Pass) for the same reasons. This area has seen fires almost annually for over a decade.

The Lyon’s project, located in an area that is designated a very high-fire-hazard area, also proposes a multi-story senior facility in addition to more urban sprawl placed far back into the canyon. This seemed particularly egregious to us.

When it was first approved in 2006, we asked how they would evacuate these seniors and also protect houses in a fast-moving, wind-driven fire. With a potential electricity outage (that often accompanies fires) eliminating the use of elevators, how would disabled and/or frail seniors be able to exit a multi-story building quickly?

Now with the horrific loss of life in the Paradise fire, we see the answer – they can’t.

We have opposed every extension for this project, but Los Angeles County continues to allow it to move forward with the county Fire Department’s blessing.

Climate-driven drought and low humidity have caused tree death and the drying out of grass lands all over the state. Over-pumping ground water has not helped either, as this is thought to be one cause of tree death in some California oak woodland areas.

Late rains that occur after the seasonal Santa Ana winds, instead of before, are causing a change in fire behavior making monstrous infernos out of wildfires that would have burned less rapidly in more humid conditions and rain-soaked soils.

Climate change is only part of the cause of the massive loss of homes in California fires.  Another is poor planning and the failure to upgrade electrical infrastructure.

With so many fires being caused by downed power lines and other electrical failures, the Public Utilities Commission must take a harder look at these private companies.

Costs from fires caused by electrical infrastructure failures should not be shifted onto the public while stock holders of these companies continue to make profits and executives receive huge salaries.

Cutting large swaths of trees under power lines will not stop a downed, sparking wire from causing a wildfire in dry brush. The companies must upgrade and replace these old electrical lines.

It will be expensive, but the wildfires and loss of life are even more costly.

The failure of our planning departments to recognize this increasing climate-driven problem and stop approving or require more safeguards for housing in these dangerous areas has also added to our wildfire woes.

Fires consistently destroy housing in the wildlands-urban interface areas, designated by Los Angeles County as High and Very High Fire Hazard areas.

“Even though the Wildland Urban Interface occupies less than on-10th of the land area of the conterminous United States, 43 percent of all new houses were built there,” according to a recent scientific inquiry into the matter, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As planners continue to fail to recognize the impacts of climate change and the increasing wildfire danger, and allow housing into these areas without additional safeguards, they put future residents at risk.

And as firefighting becomes more and more expensive in California, these ill-conceived approvals are also straining our state’s financial resources.

It is time to say NO to such proposals or require extremely stringent conditions on housing projects in wildfire areas (sprinklers on every roof? solar panel energy generation to avoid sparking of transmission wires?)

We urge L.A. County and the city of Santa Clarita to convene a joint committee and to address new housing proposals in extreme fire hazard areas. It is long past time to develop new fire ordinances with stricter rules and requirements for any development in the wildland urban interface areas.

Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.

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