California Rebuilds After Fires Without Updating Building Codes

Rebuilding after fire in California

Debate rages as local officials in California issue permits for homes in fire zones, exempting residents from zoning rules so they can build bigger homes.

Christopher Flavelle’s March 1 Bloomberg Businessweek story “Why Is California Rebuilding in Fire Country? Because You’re Paying for It” is an eye-opening look at how building codes, zoning requirements, and firefighter safety are being side-stepped as victims of fire rebuild homes in risky areas:

As climate change creates warmer, drier conditions, which increase the risk of fire, California has a chance to rethink how it deals with the problem. Instead, after the state’s worst fire season on record, policymakers appear set to make the same decisions that put homeowners at risk in the first place. Driven by the demands of displaced residents, a housing shortage, and a thriving economy, local officials are issuing permits to rebuild without updating building codes. They’re even exempting residents from zoning rules so they can build bigger homes.

State officials have proposed shielding people in fire-prone areas from increased insurance premiums—potentially at the expense of homeowners elsewhere in California—in an effort to encourage them to remain in areas certain to burn again. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spent a record $700 million on fire suppression from July to January, yet last year Governor Jerry Brown suspended the fee that people in fire-prone areas once paid to help offset those costs

Related Story: New Edition of NFPA 1144 Offers Detailed Wildfire Proofing Practices 

Critics warn that those decisions, however well-intentioned, create perverse incentives that favor the short-term interests of homeowners at the edge of the wilderness—leaving them vulnerable to the next fire while pushing the full cost of risky building decisions onto state and federal taxpayers, firefighters, and insurance companies. “The moral hazard being created is absolutely enormous,” says Ian Adams, a policy analyst at the R Street Institute, which advocates using market signals to address climate risk. “If you want to rebuild in an area where there’s a good chance your home is going to burn down again, go for it. But I don’t want to be subsidizing you.”

Read the full story here.