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Rebuilding Over And Over: Why California Can't Stop Developing In High-Risk Areas

When the October wildfire crept its way up a mountainside toward his Anaheim Hills home, Saeed Yazdianpour took his garden hose and tried to battle the blaze.

No matter how much water he sprayed at the orange flames, the wildfire kept growing, eating the vegetation, spreading and consuming everything in its path.

Charred vegetation from the Canyon Fire 2 wildfire in Anaheim Hills
Charred vegetation from the Canyon Fire 2 wildfire in Anaheim Hills

Yazdianpour said as the fire grew closer, he dropped the hose, ran inside and called firefighters. His roof caught fire.

Firefighters rushed upstairs and managed to quickly knock down what could have been a disastrous fire, but water they used ended up pouring down into the second-floor master bedroom and flooding the first floor.

On a recent Friday, Yazdianpour, 57, stood on the second floor of his bare home, thankful that firefighters were able to save his home but now daunted by the process of rebuilding.

“We’re hoping maybe another four more months before we can move back in, but every time my contractor comes here he finds something else wrong,” Yazdianpour said inside what was his master bedroom.

With the wooden frames exposed, termites have begun eating the wood. He looked up at a black charred area on the ceiling that caught fire and pointed at a nearby wooden beam that might need to be replaced.

“He told me he needs to contact my insurance again and I might need to call them. There’s a lot of back and forth. I’m probably going to fumigate my house too,” Yazdianpour said, dreading the phone calls to come.

“This is the most stressful time,” said Brian Stanley, a neighbor whose home was one of 58 that burned down during the Freeway Complex Fire in Anaheim Hills in 2008 and who has been advising Yardianpour during his rebuilding effort. “You really have to fight insurance to get what you want.”  

California had its worst year on record for wildfires in 2017, with fires that burned in fire-prone Southern California and those that hit areas of Northern California often thought safe from such danger.

Now cities in heavy-hit areas are in the process of getting life back in order for residents and learning from the experience. In California, where many of the state’s communities face risk of wildfires, flooding from sea level rise or earthquakes, rebuilding is never in question. Homes will be rebuilt because the demand for housing is just too great and the supply too small.

But rebuilding takes time and a lot of effort.

The roof of Saeed Yazdianpour's home caught fire during the Canyon Fire 2 wildfire in October in Anaheim Hills.
The roof of Saeed Yazdianpour's home caught fire during the Canyon Fire 2 wildfire in October in Anaheim Hills.

At least eight wildfires scorched more than 300,000 acres of land and damaged or destroyed 32,000 homes, 4,300 businesses and more than 8,200 vehicles across Southern California from San Diego to Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties. In Northern California, a series of fires destroyed over 200,000 acres and 8,900 homes and property in October.

In January, the California Department of Insurance reported insurers had received nearly 45,000 insurance claims totaling nearly $12B in losses from the wildfires in October and December.

In Ventura County, where the massive Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres and destroyed or damaged 1,300 homes, residents have yet to file a single permit application to rebuild a home, according to Ventura County spokesman Chris Stephens.

The county’s board of supervisors has taken action to waive some fees and established an expedited permit review and issuance process once residents are ready, he said.

Anaheim is also waiving fees for property owners whose homes burned down in the Canyon Fire 2 wildfire.

The Orange County and Los Angeles region is facing a severe housing shortage, so getting residents the support and help they need to rebuild is of utmost importance, Anaheim spokeswoman Erin Ryan said.

The Anaheim City Council is implementing a two-phase approach to manage vegetation on surrounding public property by removing dead brush and trees and planting native plants that are less susceptible to fire.

“As funding becomes available, we’ll begin to implement the management plan in our high-priority areas first,” she said.

Rebuilding Underway In Northern California

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors continue to remove debris in Coffey Park neighborhood within Santa Rosa, California as part of the mission to oversee the clearing of residential properties, Jan. 5.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors remove debris in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif.

In Northern California, rebuilding will be critical to keeping residents in an already supply-constrained housing environment. The Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis continues to shape urban planning, but trying to build in a risk-free zone is nearly impossible, according to Bay Area Council Senior Vice President of Public Policy Matt Regan.

Different government agency plans that take into account risks such as wildfire, air quality, sea level and seismic risks leave little to no areas to build without some kind of risk, he said.

“We can’t decrease risks in every instance,” Regan said. “We need to continue to build and do it wisely and smartly and minimize risks whenever possible.”

With the Bay Area at basically no residential vacancies, rebuilding in Santa Rosa will need to be expedited as much as possible, Regan said.

 

Santa Rosa Economic Development Manager Raissa de la Rosa
Santa Rosa Economic Development Manager Raissa de la Rosa

The city of Santa Rosa has been making the process as quick and easy as possible, and several organizations are working to make rebuilding easier, especially in areas like Coffey Park, where the entire neighborhood was destroyed.

The fires that struck Santa Rosa were unique because they hit areas that are not prone to wildfire risks. The winds catapulted the fire across freeways and into dense neighborhoods, according to Santa Rosa Economic Development Manager Raissa de la Rosa. Just under 3,000 working-class homes and 31 commercial parcels were destroyed.

Residents will have to rebuild as quickly as possible to fit within insurance timelines and to guarantee government funding. Federal and state assistance does not last beyond two years, according to Santa Rosa Director of Planning and Economic Development David Guhin. The rebuilt homes will need to meet current building codes and standards, which include sprinkler systems, defensible space and other fire suppression methods, Guhin said.

To help streamline the rebuilding process and help residents understand the current codes, Santa Rosa hired a firm to handle the permitting and building services off-site and dedicate resources to focus on the rebuilding efforts, de la Rosa said. Guhin and de la Rosa have been going out every day to meet with residents and help them through the process.

“Time matters. Communication matters. We are fortunate that we have been communicating,” de la Rosa said.

The city also is looking for ways to address residents who were renters and are now looking for a home, she said. She said the city will increase its efforts to rebuild elsewhere to provide better housing options. The fires helped move forward plans for increasing density in downtown Santa Rosa. The city is expediting work to amend the specific plan and associated regulations to increase building height and residential density. The city also is in active discussions with developers to find ways to increase density, de la Rosa said.

“We recognize that not everybody can or will rebuild or were renters and don’t have a place to rebuild,” she said.

Past Fires Have Helped Shape The Current Response

Joint Venture Silicon Valley Executive Director and Oku Solutions founder and CEO David Witkowski, Legal Constructs architect and attorney and AIARE Firestorm Recovery Committee chairwoman Julia Donoho and US Geological Survey Operations Research Analyst Anne Wein during a CREW San Francisco event
Joint Venture Silicon Valley Executive Director and Oku Solutions founder and CEO David Witkowski, Legal Constructs architect and attorney and AIARE Firestorm Recovery Committee Chairwoman Julia Donoho and U.S. Geological Survey Operations Research Analyst Anne Wein during a CREW San Francisco event

Lessons learned from past fires are shaping effective rebuilding methods in Santa Rosa. After the fires that struck Lake County in 2015, homeowners did not have good information about the insurance and rebuilding process and many ended up leaving, according to Legal Constructs architect and attorney Julia Donoho, who spoke during a CREW San Francisco event.

The AIARE Firestorm Recovery Committee, an organization associated with the American Institute of Architects, Redwood Empire, has been helping homeowners understand and navigate the insurance process so they will be more likely to rebuild instead of moving away, according to Donoho, who is chairwoman of the AIARE FRC. The organization was formed to discuss issues of advocacy, outreach, capacity, permitting, sustainability and transitional housing.

“The challenge will be finding ways to keep the workforce in Santa Rosa instead of them cashing out and moving elsewhere,” Donoho said.

Donoho is hoping to use a process in Coffey Park that was used in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood in San Diego that led to faster, cheaper rebuilds after a 2003 fire. Instead of individually rebuilding homes, homeowners partnered with a big developer to build over 80 homes at once, which led to a savings of $50K to $100K per home. She said Coffey Park is more organized and the homeowners association is getting involved in the process.

Fire destruction of Scripps Ranch in San Diego in 2003
Fire destruction of Scripps Ranch in San Diego in 2003

Over a decade before the San Diego fire, the Bay Area was struck by a fast-moving fire that hit a very dense part of the Oakland Hills. The 1991 Oakland Hills fire spanned 1,500 acres and destroyed 3,500 homes. It took several years to rebuild and the Bay Area still feels the impact of the fire today. The Oakland Hills fire led to better street parking regulations to make the narrow roads more accessible to firetrucks, Bay Area Council’s Regan said. The Oakland Hills fires also led to the Wildland Urban Interface, which includes requirements for sprinkler systems, fire-resistant material and removing flammable materials near buildings.

Residents in the Oakland Hills expect a fire every 20 to 30 years and the community is overdue, according to SFGate. Residents who lived through the 1991 fire formed an Oakland Firesafe Council, which advocates for fire safety and pushes the city for increased enforcement of fire prevention regulations, such as making sure residents trim their trees so limbs do not hang over structures. Oakland is not the only city dealing with enforcement of fire prevention regulations.

As They Rebuild, Cities Turn To Future Fire Prevention

The Anaheim City Council Tuesday unanimously amended an existing ordinance that requires property owners to keep their property free of brush, noxious growth and trash, and allows the city to clear the materials on the property if the homeowner fails to do so.

Currently, the city gives a property owner 10 days to clear the brush, growth or trash, but in extreme fire danger situations, the city will clear the area within 72 hours if no objection is raised by the property owner.

Anaheim Fire and Rescue Chief Randy Bruegman wrote in a report that, during the recent Canyon Fire and Canyon Fire 2, the spread of fire was dramatically impacted by the type of vegetation, plants and trees that surrounded homes.

“Planting for fire safety through proper plant selection, placement, and maintenance can diminish the possibility of ignition, lower fire intensity, and reduce how quickly a fire spreads, all of which increase a home’s survivability,” he wrote.

He said property owners should plant fire-smart plants and trees such as aloe, agave, cactus, yucca and deciduous trees. These fire-resistant plants and trees are found to have high moisture content, low growth and stems and leaves that are not oily or waxy.

Brian Stanley and Willie Laundrie look at the charred vegetation that caught fire from the Canyon Fire 2 wildfire behind Laundrie's home in Anaheim Hills.
Residents Brian Stanley and Willie Laundrie look at the charred vegetation that caught fire from the Canyon Fire 2 wildfire behind Laundrie's home in Anaheim Hills.

Stanley, the Anaheim homeowner whose home burned down 10 years ago, said local officials and residents still have to do more to clear dry brush and trees in vacant nearby lands and near homes.

Willie Laundrie, 61, of Anaheim Hills, said for years he has been bugging the city and his homeowners association to clear the pepper trees that line the scenic corridor on the back of his and other neighbors’ properties.

“Once those trees catch fire and the wind hits it, it’s like a fan blowing leaves on fire in all directions,” said Laundrie, whose home suffered from radiant heat from the wildfire.

Stanley said many residents will complain and take precautions in the weeks after a catastrophic fire but let their guard down in the subsequent months or years.

“We need to always be ready,” Stanley said. “This scares the hell out of me because me and my neighbors, we all have kids.”

The city has a Ready, Set, Go program that educates homeowners on wildfire prevention but the residents have to put in the effort, said Stanley, who underwent Community Emergency Response Team certification after his home burned down in 2008.

“I don’t think we’re as prepared as we think we are,” he said. “They shouldn’t be doing this just for themselves but for everyone who lives in the area.”

Yazdianpour, who is rebuilding parts of his home, said he is thankful for how his neighbors and the community rallied behind those whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

Neighbors would come by his home and drop off gift cards. When the family would eat out, he would find the check would already be paid for, he said. Neighbors whose homes burned in previous fires offered advice.

“You don’t know how thankful my family and I are of this wonderful neighborhood,” Yazdianpour said. “I don’t know how to repay their generosity.”

Wildfire Story 3/2/18

Stanley said Anaheim Hills is a great place to live. It took two years for his home to be rebuilt with insurance money after it burned in 2008. Some residents whose homes burned did leave. Rather than rebuild, they sold their lots or rebuilt a home and left.

“I love the view,” said Stanley in his backyard that overlooks the mountain side in Yorba Linda and Corona. “I love that it’s not crowded. I have great neighbors. The junior high and high schools are some of the best in Orange County.

“Yes, I do pay high taxes and live in a wildfire-prone area, but even if I wanted to live somewhere else, I can’t afford it.

“When I look around, I can’t beat the living here,” he said.