Rethinking homes in fire-prone areas

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The Woolsey Fire barrels towards the home of Claudia and Rob Taylor. This newly completed guesthouse survived; it has a metal roof, concrete structure and no eaves, all recommended in fire zones. Will new structures in Malibu follow suit? Photo by Claudia Taylor

Residents of Malibu gathered Tuesday night at the first regular meeting of the City Council since the Woolsey fire rampaged through the beach city, torching an estimated 443 homes and damaging many others.

Many residents expressed frustration with their elected officials. They decried the absence of firefighters during the blaze (emergency services were stretched to the limit by fighting simultaneous fires north and south of the state; and by the sheer force of Woolsey) and, now, the slow pace of debris removal and permitting process.

Despite the horror of the fire, most homeowners want to rebuild. So the meeting focused on expediting the permitting process, making available funds for disaster recovery and changing zoning rules to allow temporary structures to remain longer on properties.

For the incoming mayor of Malibu, Jefferson Wagner, also known as Zuma Jay, these grievances are personal. He owns a surf shop on Pacific Coast Highway and lost his home after fighting the fires for twelve hours. Embers got onto his roof and burned the house from the top down. He lost everything. Now he says he’ll rebuild along with everyone else.

“I'm going to be leading shoulder to shoulder with these people,” Wagner said. “I’m the only council member or mayor that lost his home in this tragedy and I will be going through this exact same experience that all these other hundreds of homeowners are going to be going through. I'll be going through the exact same thing. I'll be sharing their misery and their successes.”

He adds that he will rebuild exactly as before because that will expedite the approval of permits.

However, some critics, most prominently the writer Mike Davis, question rebuilding in such a fire prone area. He has asked why the broader public should have to pay to “protect or rebuild mansions on sites that will inevitably burn every 20 or 25 years.”

Incoming Councilman Mikke Pierson, who was a longtime planning commissioner, told DnA that “there's a side of that that's absolutely true but the reality is this community has been my home my entire life. We're not leaving. So I think we need to adapt to the environment and the environment is those hotter faster fires that they're not going away.” Another homeowner, Colette Brooks, who lost her guesthouse and several outbuildings to the fire, said “Climate change is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. We can't escape it. So whether it's fires or storms or floods where do you go? We can't escape it.”

In the longterm, insurance companies may have a say in where people build. It has been reported that insurers are increasingly backing out of renewing policies in fire-prone areas.

Pierson adds that it is not appropriate for taxpayers to be paying for costly firefighting, saying no one is going to pay the tax money to have a large fire force “waiting around for your 10 to 20 year firestorm. It's just not going to work that way. So I think the real answer is the hard answer is we have to make homes to build homes that can defend themselves.”

He says the city should consider alternative structures, different materials and more careful siting than commonly permitted in Malibu.

That includes: tiny homes, container homes, and more prefab because it can be faster and cheaper than stick-built homes. And he suggests people build with concrete rather than wood, with roofs of metal, no eaves and a wide perimeter free of flammable plants.

That said, Malibu’s current mayor Rick Mullen says that he too wants to have these discussions but he also wants to help people rebuild as quickly as possible.

As this copy goes to press, rain is pouring Wednesday and expected Thursday, so the city of Malibu is now preparing for storms and the possibility of mudslides.