Fire and rain

jc-mg-200-names.jpgWe live in a fire prone land. Los Angeles "has been a historically active wildfire region," says a new report from CoreLogic, a residential property information, analytics and services provider. That's not news.

What is news is how much property is at risk in the Los Angeles area, which is home to more single-family residences exposed to wildfire risk that any city in the American West, with more than 60,000 properties in CoreLogic's high and very high risk categories. The total value of the homes in those two categories is estimated to be nearly $8.3 billion, with Malibu at the top of the list, with more than $700 million in potential residential property exposure to wildfire risk, followed by Topanga, Canyon Country, Sylmar, Castaic, Santa Clarita, Los Angeles, Agoura Hills, Beverly Hills, and Newhall.

Los Angeles may be a poster child for wildfire risk, but it is by no means unique. In recent decades, an astonishing number of houses have been built in the so-called "wildland urban interface" -- WUI or "woo-eee" in fire-fighting lingo, the area where urban development interlaces with wild land. Between 1990 and 2008, more than half of the homes built in the United States were constructed in the WUI, according to the report, 10 million out of the 17 million total, and are, therefore, potentially exposed to higher wildfire risk. The report identifies more than 1.2 million residential properties across 13 states in the American West at high or very high risk for wildfire damage, with a combined total property value estimated at more than $189 billion. More than 268,000 homes fall into the very high risk category alone, with total exposure valued at more than $41 billion.

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"As cities grow in population, they tend to expand outward into formerly undeveloped wildland areas," said Thomas Jeffery, senior hazard scientist at CoreLogic. "Since much of the expansion on the urban edge consists of residential properties, an increasing number of newer homes are located in close proximity to natural wildland areas where the potential for wildfire damage is much greater."

Jeffery noted that 2012 set new wildfire records and the 2013 wildfire season has already seen a number of damaging fires around the West, including the Rim Fire in Yosemite. "More importantly, the season is far from over," he said. "The next two months could be a critical time should fires continue to ravage the dry fuel areas in the West, as ongoing drought conditions in the region continue to exacerbate wildfire risk."

As Angelenos know all too well, Jeffery added: "Just because your home is located within a city boundary does not necessarily mean you are safe from wildfire destruction if there is wildland vegetation nearby. Wind-blown embers can travel hundreds or even thousands of feet and ignite homes located far away from an actual fire." (JC)

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Last week, we wrote about Mayor Eric Garcetti's ambitions to do "something radical" about water in Los Angeles. Actually, it turns out, many radical things need to be done to make the city more sustainable -- as well as some things that are not so radical, like simply allowing residents to follow ordinances we already have on the books.

After we mentioned Garcetti's goal to take the residential rain barrel program citywide and capture up to 800 million gallons a year for outdoor water use, architect Dan Jansenson wrote to us: "The problem with the use of rain barrels in L.A. is that owners are not allowed to keep water in the barrels longer than three days (to avoid mosquito infestations). And who waters their lawn within three days of a rainstorm?"

Dan makes a very good point. L.A.'s new ordinance on Low Impact Development --often referred to simply as "LID" by planning wonks -- requires rain barrels, rain gardens, rain chains, or other best management practices for water on all new residential buildings and remodeling that exceeds 500 square feet. Of course, we don't want rain barrels to become a breeding ground for mosquitoes -- a "vector hazard" in the lingo of public health. And rain barrel water lines should not have any connections to water supply lines that feed interior plumbing fixtures. But preventing cross connections and a vector nuisance is not that difficult. A properly designed rain barrel fed by a roof drain poses no immediate health risk to residents. Residents just have to inspect their rain barrels for fouling and mosquito larvae on a periodic basis. If properly designed and periodically inspected, there is no reason that a rain barrel can't store rainwater for a few weeks before it is used.

If city officials order rain barrel owners to drain their barrels within three days of a storm during the "plan check" process when new construction and remodeling plans are approved, that could severely deter the spread of rain barrels, which can reduce our reliance on potable water for landscaping needs. The Los Angeles LID ordinance and L.A. County Department of Public Health policies on rainwater use policy were never intended to restrict the use of rain barrels so severely. (Full disclosure: I can tell you this because I worked on those ordinances and policies. -- MG) Plan check staff should be encouraging residents to use rain barrels. We need to use every drop of water we can catch.

There is a bigger problem here that needs to be addressed at the plan check level. Adding green technology to a home often depends on the final step of a plan check. But technologies change rapidly, and plan check staff are not always up-to-speed on the latest innovations. If you think of all the energy and water efficiency technology breakthroughs over the last decade, it really is a big challenge for city staff to keep up, let alone encourage builders and homeowners to install new green technologies. This is a major bottleneck that L.A.-area cities need to break through if we really hope to become a more sustainable metropolitan region, one home at a time. (MG)

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