In the past 48 hours, it seems that all of Southern California has begun to go up in flames. Especially in an extra-dry year such as this one has been, this is no surprise, but it is far from a welcome development -- especially for those in or near the fire areas. While Los Angeles County has seemingly drawn the most national attention -- the "celebrity-filled Malibu" angle probably accounts for that -- matters are
as bad or much worse in San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Today's issue of the Los Angeles Daily Journal (our local legal newspaper, unfortunately not available online to non-subscribers) reports that so many judges, lawyers and staffers in San Diego have been affected by fire that the county's entire court system was shut down yesterday. (San Diego courts remain closed today, per the courts' website.)
- The Los Angeles Times has linked an Interactive Google Map of the fires throughout the region, with updates on size, containment (of which there is still very little) and damage.
- The NASA photo above gives an idea of the extent of fires around Los Angeles at mid-afternoon on Sunday. At the NASA website, you can compare that photo side by side with another from three hours earlier, for an inkling of how speedily the conflagrations spread once they got started.
One of the key problems with California wild fires is the intermix of natural fuels -- uncleared brush and foliage, particularly in the chaparral-type ecosystems that dominate the region -- and man-made commercial and residential structures. Back in May, early on in this year's fire season, Insurance Journal published a story ("High Expectations Create Hazard for Firefighters in the Wild") examining the heightened risks faced by firefighters pressured to "do whatever it takes" to save homes from the flames. Among others, the IJ story quotes John Maclean "a federally certified firefighter and the author of several books on wildfire disasters":
Maclean said the Forest Service could scale back structural protection without too much political fallout, but that would not be easy for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which answers to the governor.
More than 6 million homes in the Golden State stand in wildfire 'red zones' and that number is expected to grow by 20 percent in the next decade.
'There is an expectation on the part of a lot of people that somebody better get in there and do or die for their house,' Maclean said. 'If you stop doing that and you stop taking reasonable risk to protect structures, you'd have a new governor in about five minutes.'
Chaparral, like many another natural phenomenon, has its own group of supporters, notably the California Chaparral Institute. It is commonly assumed that the array of plants that make up chaparral actually thrive on fire, or require fire as part of its natural life cycle. The Institute argues against that perception, emphasizing that while many plants are well adapted to recovery after a fire, none really require it. Discussing "How chaparral is misunderstood," the Institute looks back at the long history of brush fire in California, and gives simple advice on managing the risk attendant on living when surrounded by a fire-prone native environment:
Large chaparral fires have occurred prior to 2003 and will continue to occur. Southern California has one of the worst fire-prone climates on earth. For example, an estimated total of 800,000 acres burned late September, 1889 in two different fires. One in Orange County, the other in San Diego County (the 2003 Cedar fire [in San Diego County] burned a little over 273,000 acres). They weren't big deals then because no one really lived in the back country. Now, with so many homes up against the wilderness, fires can become catastrophic.
'Santa Ana. Sept. 25. - The fire which has been burning for the past two days still continues in the canyons. The burned and burning district now extends over one hundred miles from north to south, and is 10 to 18 miles in width. Over $100,000 worth of pasturage and timber has been destroyed.'
Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1889.
The best ways to prevent loss of life and property are to retrofit existing structures to make them more fire safe, plan communities so they are not built in high fire risk areas, and maintain proper vegetation management directly around structures.
Those whose homes and businesses are damaged in these fires will inevitably present claims to their insurers. The most fire-prone brush and slope areas are predominately covered by the California FAIR Plan*, but private insurers can expect their share. California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner yesterday issued a press release on responses to the fires. While there will likely be a string of stories suggesting that insurers have dealt unfairly with fire claims, the Commissioner's release ends with this remark directed to "public adjusters," whose role is to represent insureds and to pursue claims on their behalf:
Commissioner Poizner also reminds public adjusters of a law enacted after the 2003 wildfires that prohibits them from soliciting homeowners for adjusting business for seven calendar days after the disaster. The purpose of the law is to permit victims, such as victims of this week's fires, to have some time to comprehend their losses before contracts relating to their losses are solicited.
More fire and insurance news as the situation develops...
* Matt Welch, then with Reason magazine and now of the Los Angeles Times, took a skeptical view of the FAIR plan in 2003, noting its tendency to encourage building in dangerous areas by making available unduly affordable insurance.
A personal anecdote: When we bought our current home in Glendale, just north of Los Angeles, 16 years ago, a brushfire came within a quarter mile or less two days after we closed escrow. We were insured with the FAIR plan for the first ten years or so, at which point several private market insurers began writing in the neighborhood. Were those insurers unwise? Personally, I hope never to have cause to find out.
UPDATE [2115 PDT]: From his current perch at the LAT, Matt Welch has a few more choice insights on FAIR plans. A small taste:
The Malibu Schadenfreude identified by Steve Lopez and others today contains a legitimate public-policy issue within its (even more legitimate?) naked class envy/hatred. Namely, that many rich folk who build mansions in canyons -- and their less-rich compadres who build McMansions in foothills -- do so with subsidized, artificially inexpensive, actuarily unsound, government-secured insurance of last resort, called the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements, or FAIR for short (and ironic). . . .
It is peculiar that a government-based insurance mechanism originally intended to deal with the urban wreckage of the riotous -- but metaphorical -- "long hot summers" of the 1960's is now the central tentpole for property owners' responses to the literal "long hot summers" that annually turn southern California into the prime exhibit in the Tinder Box Museum.
Discuss, if you will.
FURTHER UPDATE [102607, 1047 PDT]: The Wall Street Journal, in an article free to non-subscribers, profiles California Chaparral Institute founder Richard Halsey, who is encountered with hose at the ready as that chaparral around his own home burns vigorously: