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Why do homeowners keep rebuilding their homes in fire areas?




The Thomas Fire approaches a home on December 12, 2017 in Montecito, California.
The Thomas Fire approaches a home on December 12, 2017 in Montecito, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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The Thomas Fire has been burning for 16 days and is now the second largest wildfire in California history. As of this morning, it's burned 272,000 acres and is 60 percent contained.

The fire in Ventura County is just the most recent in a catastrophic wildfire season that's reignited a longstanding debate: How many times should a homeowner be allowed to rebuild in the same place after a fire?

To discuss the pros and cons - and history - of rebuilding after a wildfire Take Two's Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Char Miller. He's director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

When did the arguments for and against rebuilding after fires first start?

MILLER: My research takes this debate back to the 1920s. It reemerged in the 1940s and since World War II has been in the dialogues every fire season. Now that we have essentially a 12-month fire season, this is a debate that is escalating in importance, and crying out for resolutions.

What policies are in place now in terms of rebuilding homes multiple times after fires strike?

MILLER:There really is no policy. Insurance companies will support you if you wish to do it. Planning and zoning commissions do not step in and say, "Not a good idea. Place burned three times, maybe fourth time is not a charm." So there's really little local or state or investment block to this process continuing time after time.

Are there current guidelines to designate certain areas as "high risk?"

MILLER: The state has a mapping of fire zones [because] they have enacted a low-cost tax that goes into fire safety programs. That helps Cal Fire initiatives when they're not fighting fires. That is to say, really to educate us about the dangers of fires and the need for defensible space within these zones. All of that's good, until fires like the Thomas fire which totally overruns any educational mission or defensible space. 

From your research, what can you tell us about why people continue to live in areas prone to wildfire?

MILLER: It's really beautiful. Let's be honest, these are incredible landscapes... You can see why people would do it, and we incentivize it. We bring water and electricity and build roads up there to make living possible. You're being told it's O.K.

Interview has been edited for clarity