Thursday, May 24, 2007

Waiting for the Winds to Blow

IN many newsrooms, the annual brush fire risk report is usually greeted with grim humor. No matter what the weather, it was always bad news.

If there is abundant rain, more brush will grow, thereby elevating the risk.

In dry years, the hillsides are tinderboxes waiting to explode in flame.

It makes me wonder why fire officials even bother with a yearly update. Fire season is year-round, no matter the weather.

The report this year is predictably bad, owing in large part to the fact that our annual rainfall barely eclipsed that of Death Valley. And federal meteorologists are warning us that we can expect extreme drought conditions for the foreseeable future in Southern California.

That was information I didn't really need because I discovered just the other day that I had misplaced my umbrella. I didn't remember where it was because I didn't use it this year.

So here we are, once again, living on the precipice in Los Angeles. Be it earthquakes, wildfires or race relations, we're always a half-step away from stepping on the apocalyptic banana peel in our little corner of paradise.

Just in the last several weeks, wildfires almost annihilated Griffith Park. At the same time, Catalina Island almost became uninhabited. Had the Santa Anas been blowing, the ending would have not been so happy.

Against this backdrop, insurance inspectors are swooping down on homes in high-risk areas and demanding that owners take action: clear brush, cut down trees, install fireproof roofs.

Why? Because, according to one published report, more than 6 million homes stand in wildfire red zones and the number of homes going up in "wild land communities" is expected to rise by 20 percent in the next decade.

Yet a study conducted by Allstate found that three-quarter of the residents living in high-risk communities thought it was somewhat or very unlikely that their homes would burn.

Look, I don't usually get warm and fuzzy about the insurance industry. At last report, it made billions in profits, even after paying out claims related to Hurricane Katrina. There's some smoke and mirrors in that figure because many insurers purchased disaster insurance of their own before the 2005 storms, much of it from overseas firms. Bottom line: You won't see many insurance executives hustling spare change at freeway onramps.

On top of that, I suspect insurer demands on policy owners become excessive in some cases.

But if their efforts force people to take greater responsibility for their own safety and even, perish the thought, stop building in fire-prone areas, maybe some good will come of this.

It is absolutely insane that we repeat the same cycle year after year after year. Wildfires erupt in brush areas, and pushed by hot dry winds, consume housing developments that shouldn't be there.

The Cedar Fire in October 2003 was a classic example. Fanned by Santa Anas, it burned 722,000 acres: 3,640 buildings were destroyed, 15 people died.

In 1996, 10 homes burned in Malibu and Calabasas. In 1993, fires that ravaged Malibu, Calabasas and Altadena killed three people, injured 12, destroyed or damaged nearly 400 houses, and forced the evacuation of thousands. In June 1990, the College Hills brush fire in Glendale destroyed or damaged 67 homes. In 1982, a wind-driven fire raced from Dayton Canyon in the West San Fernando Valley to the Malibu coast, destroying 97 homes and burning 54,000 acres.

And on it goes.

Is our memory that short? Is our will that weak? Then maybe a face slap from the insurance companies will get our attention.

And let's face it, those same insurance companies are beginning to check out of the Hotel California. Allstate has announced it would no longer underwrite new homeowner policies in the state, citing risks from wildfires and earthquakes.

California FAIR plan already insures 20,000 homes in brush fire areas and one would have to think there are limits as to how many of these policies can be written.

Perhaps it is time to rethink how and where we live while we wait for the winds to blow.

And blow they will. In the words of Joan Didion:

"There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it..."

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