USA: California bent on rebuilding despite wildfire risk

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By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Twice in the span of a month, wildfires have ravaged the same northeast corner of greater Los Angeles, destroying hundreds of homes and the good life offered by California's scenic beauty at the city's edge.

Visiting a mobile home park in the chaparral-covered foothills where 500 dwellings were leveled in the latest firestorm, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Sunday: "Every single time there is a fire like that we learn new things."

This time, he said, the state learned it should apply stricter building codes to mobile homes and improve hospital generators. But at no point did the popular governor say Californians shouldn't be living in these high-risk fire areas. Quite the contrary.

"We want to let the people know that the state is with you, we're going to help to get your homes back and your structures back, to get your lives back," Schwarzenegger said.

Over 1,000 homes have been destroyed since last Thursday in a swarm of wind-driven brush fires that struck a luxury coastal enclave of Montecito, the northeastern Los Angeles suburb of Sylmar and several communities in Orange County.

Some of the same Sylmar residents chased from their homes this past weekend were forced to evacuate last month by separate fires that burned about 100 structures in two nearby areas last month. By comparison, some 2,000 homes were lost in 30 fires that raged across Southern California during a single week of October 2007.

Many displaced residents, whether they inhabited humble mobile homes or opulent mansions, are bent on rebuilding.

Brittney Fowler, 23, who lost the Yorba Linda home she had lived in her whole life, said her family would "definitely" rebuild their large house overlooking a wooded canyon.

Many homeowners are drawn to neighborhoods on the fringes of urban areas in search of a greater connection to nature. Others find more affordable housing there than what is available in closer to downtown.

Southern California, with its warm, sunny climate, is indeed a crowded place. And the region's developers, residents and politicians all been been willing participants in pushing civilization further into the wilderness.


"After every fire there is a big, blue-ribbon panel that has a bunch of recommendations, and then we go back and do the easiest thing and forget about it until it happens again," said Travis Longcore, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in sustainable cities.

Even after the October 2007 conflagration, which forced 500,000 people to flee their homes in the state's biggest evacuation ever, Longcore said government has shown no evidence of tougher planning or willingness to tax developers and home buyers in high-risk fire areas.

"We lack the political willpower to actually say 'No,' and until that changes we will continue to see things like this happen," he said. "I wait to be disproved in my cynicism."

What Californians do know is that fire is a natural component of the region, more so in times of drought, as in recent years. There have been nearly 10,000 wildfires in the state this year, compared to an annual average of 6,000.

But what is not natural is the what Longcore calls "the abundance of human ignition."

Some fires are sparked naturally by lightening strikes, but many of the recent big fires have been blamed on arson, downed power lines, sparks from welders and general carelessness -- incidents likely to rise with the swelling population.

On Monday, a 16-year-old was arrested on arson charges in connection with a July fire that cost $20 million to suppress.

The cost of fighting wildfires this season already has reached $300 million, up from $206 million for the entire 2006-07 fire season. Schwarzenegger said California has a reserve to pay for the high firefighting bills despite a ballooning state budget deficit.

But even if government can bear the financial toll of fires, some Californians, especially those getting on in years, wonder if they can handle the emotional one.

In Yorba Linda, 69-year-old Arnold Caudill barely escaped the flames and saw his home of 21 years gutted by fire. Asked if he would rebuild he said: "I haven't thought that far ahead. All I know is, I didn't like the way it felt."

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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