Real Estate & Property Law

More Laws Needed to Protect Residents from California Wildfires

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A 1928 aerial photo taken of Mission Canyon, Calif., 10 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, shows four houses and two roads leading in and out of the scenic spot. Decades later, the shot showed 400 closely packed houses and the same two roads, home to those lucky enough to be able to live in the hills among wildlife and sweeping views.

Given the high risk of wildfires in many areas of California, including this one, it is only a matter of time until a major blaze strikes, killing residents who don’t have time to escape in bumper-to-bumper traffic, experts fear. Yet measures that could be taken to make them safer—including laws restricting home-building and requiring retrofitting of existing houses to reduce their flammability—may not be pursued until a new disaster of Hurricane Katrina-like scope persuades lawmakers to take action, writes the Los Angeles Times.

In 1991, a fire in Oakland Hills, in the Bay Area, in a matter of hours destroyed nearly 3,000 structures and killed 25. “Many of them died in or near their cars at the end of a long line of traffic, trying to flee a neighborhood of narrow, winding roads that funneled to four exits, two of which were blocked by the fire,” the Times writes.

Thomas Cova, an associate geography professor at the University of Utah, grew up in the Bay Area and has made a career out of studying such hazards. Although there have been other violent wildfires, most have occurred in unpopulated areas. Now, however, as the population has expanded, the chance of another such disaster is ever more likely, he says.

He holds out little hope that lawmakers will restrict building—or that residents can realistically expect to escape from canyon firetraps on traffic-clogged roads, in an emergency. Instead, he says, underground bunkers with water offer the best chance for survival, and are what he would rely on if he lived in such an area.

“My family and I would not get in our car and try to navigate the smoke and flames with bumper-to-bumper taillights,” he tells the newspaper. “We would just calmly open up, just like they do in Tornado Alley—open the trap door and head downstairs. Wait 20 minutes, maybe less, and come back and extinguish the embers around the home.”

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