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3 ways housing can be better developed to minimize fire destruction

A wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017.
A wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017.

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Before fires started their rampage through Southern California last week, few residents in the LA neighborhood of Sylmar or the city of Ventura could have imagined flames engulfing their homes. But it's clear that living within city limits is no safeguard against fires.

"We're a fire-prone environment. It's going to blaze, have huge catastrophic fires in terms of communities," said Richard Halsey, director of the non-profit California Chaparral Institute.

Halsey believes that this fire season should be a wake-up call for local government officials to reconsider their priorities when developing housing. "Instead of trying to stop fires, [we need to ask] how do we save lives and property?" he said. 

How housing development should change 

1. Rethink the intense focus on vegetation management

Defensible space around a community is very important. There's no questions about that. The message sometimes gets out that we want to clear the vegetation. All that creates is a bare zone which ultimately creates a bowling alley for embers to hit the house. And the point is here that houses don't explode and they don't get engulfed by flames. Most homes ignite by ember attacks.

2. Retrofit houses with technology that will better protect them from fires

"The Australians have a great technology and even the Canadians use this. They have external fire sprinklers. It's a strange idea that fire is going to come in from the outside, but that's what happens now. And so you hit a switch or push a button and the house is immersed in a mist of moisture. You throw a hose into the pool or you have your own independent pump that is going through an independent generator. It worked marvelously, but we don't look at it this way because we've never had this kind of problem with all of these communities fingering into these dangerous areas."

3. Stop building suburban housing into converted wildland areas

"I know people love to be out in suburbia, but we cannot keep putting people out in dangerous conditions like we're doing. We just can't. I know there's a housing crisis. But you're going to have a mortality crisis if you keep doing this. There are ways to make communities fire safe. There are ways to not put them in high fire zones. And the communities that are there, we need to sit back right now and do an after action report and say, 'Why did we lose those homes? What can we do to prevent that from happening?'"

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