What Happens After Half Your Town Burns Down?

25 thoughts on “What Happens After Half Your Town Burns Down?”

  1. Mark Twain had an interesting comment in his recently published “Autobiography” — sometime in the late 19th century he lived in Italy for a time — there was a fire one evening in his rented villa, and the caretakers were pretty much unconcerned and said to let it burn itself out.

    Next morning, inspection showed Twain that the fire had not really damaged the structure of the house at all.

    He then reflected on how every town of any size in the USA was so proud of their brave and high tech fire companies — but how, if they just like the Italians they would note need fire companies at all.

    Insurance companies need to deny coverage to anyone who builds something that is going to burn down in areas with lots of fires.

  2. Regulations can be bad, but looking at the scope of this disaster I think buildings in fire zones should be made of fire-resistant materials. California has regulations to require construction be earthquake-resistant; houses in places like this need to be fire-resistant as well. Given that land is most of the cost of a house, requiring steel framing becomes a barely noticeable expense.

    1. Curt – That’s the argument for mandatory fire sprinklers and a long list of other things. None of it helped in this situation. Plus, the overwhelming majority of the buildings in existence pre-date most recent codes. Society (or at least certain segments of society) currently has the collective resources to rebuild. Over time as more events like this play out soft institutional elements will take charge. Insurance companies, shifting economics, and public sentiment will likely do all the heavy lifting rather than physical retrofits.

      1. No, sprinklers are supposed to stop a fire from starting, and they are very effective at that, reducing the chance of death from a fire by 1/2 to 2/3. They aren’t supposed to stop wildfires. Codes for wildfire resistance wouldn’t have fixed existing houses, but they’d save lives and property in new ones – including the houses built to replace these.

        1. Many of america’s most beautiful areas were built of legally-required masonry, replacing wood-frame tenements with plank sidewalks. That said, we weren’t so great at concrete at the time. The same requirements just a half-century later would bear the Khrushchyovka.

  3. The comment on emergency preparedness is so true. Should something truly catastrophic occur, I’m not going anywhere near the suburbs. They don’t exist pre-automobile, which leads me to believe they aren’t a great environment in an emergency. Ideal is within the stockade walls or truly rural. I think should something go wrong, it will be a land infested with land pirates trying to rob trains.

  4. In most new developments in Santa Rosa the houses are built pretty close to each other, as is typical of the Bay Area and much of California. Skyhawk at the north end of the Sonoma Valley is an example. The land costs are too high to do otherwise. Santa Rosa has certainly grown over the past few decades, but Sonoma Co in general is notorious for using every trick in the book to stymie building.

  5. I don’t travel much, but I did take a “back to the roots” trip to Italy from Umbria south. Were I ever to return, I’d like to spend more time in the hill towns of Umbria, and check out those in Tuscany.

    Assisi had Orvieto had narrow pedestrian lanes, with only one street down the center with limited motor vehicle traffic. Assisi had a parking lot at one end of the town, next to the police station, while Orvieto’s was down below, with access via funicular.

    Walking around, I thought to myself wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like this? Then I realized no fire department would allow it. It Italy, they have mini-fire trucks and other vehicles for those sorts of places.

  6. Meanwhile, cob, clay, straw bale, aircrete and slipstraw houses aren’t allowed because of safety concerns? They don’t burn, or at least wouldn’t go up in a firestorm like this. Or would they? Maybe now would be a great time to loosen some code requirements in order to find out what really works long term. Or for the code nazis to do some research into alternatives that are both cheaper, less corporate, and safer overall.

    Great photos, Johnnie, thank you. Whatever happened to your house in Hawaii? Was it part of the lavaflow area?

  7. Fire is a natural part of California ecology. Just like earthquakes. So, while I hate a cul-de-sac as much as the next guy, I don’t think that people are “asking for it” by living in suburbs per se, although some places are worse than others as far as fire safety.

    Coffey Park is pretty low risk through that lens. It’s on the valley floor, separated from the hills by the 101. I’m really surprised they weren’t able to defend it, especially with those big bad fire trucks of theirs. Fountain Grove, on the other hand, is high risk because it snakes into the hills and is much more dispersed. In fact, the 1964 Hanly Fire burned much of the area but at that time if was largely undeveloped.

  8. Immense parking lots may be only moderately effective as fire breaks but they probably make good safe places in the event that you have too little time for a proper evacuation.

    1. In this case the heat generated by the fires and the toxic smoke would have killed anyone in the parking lots. 180,000+ acres… or 280 square miles. A parking lot doesn’t help at that scale.

  9. That photo near the top, with a fire extinguisher in the foreground, also shows the remains of a sprinkler system up above. Codes and preparations only go just so far.

  10. So many observant and true items here. I wonder if, indeed, extra wide roads were built just to accommodate large fire trucks? One of your most poignant photos above shows a long, high wall, abutting a roadway, against a burned out landscape of homes. I think that shows California at its most Californian. I read also that in 1960, there was another large fire in Santa Rosa and at that time there were about 600 houses in the hills that burned, and in 2017, there were 6,000. We not only have sprawl into the countryside, but we now have the higher temperatures drying out the vegetation, making the next fire even deadlier. Great, sad photos.

    1. Road standards are very much determined by fire safety codes. In most cases a new or upgraded road must be wide enough for two fire engines to pass each other. Cul-de-sacs are the size they are so a fire engine can turn around in a wide loop. Strip malls, hotels, big box stores, office parks… all have a fire truck lane that completely surrounds each building for total emergency access.

      1. Great post, as usual.
        As far as the fire trucks, somehow cities in Europe manage to not burn down, even with very narrow roads. I lived in Dublin for 4 years, and there are lots of streets there where you need to drive up onto the sidewalk for two cars to pass. Smaller fire trucks is presumably part of the answer…

        1. I agree. Fire and garbage trucks keep getting bigger, and then those depts tell us we have to make our roads bigger to accommodate them. Very frustrating. Surely when procuring their vehicles, fire and waste collection should look at the environment they will be operating in, and purchase accordingly? It’s the vehicles that are wrong, not the roads.

          1. If the fire department had to pay to maintain every inch of increased road width that they demanded, and they were transparent of how these costs for large vehicles of marginal benefits were sucking municipal budgets dry, this situation wouldn’t exist.

            Humans are wonderful at adapting to capitalize on a more a prosperous environment- everyone is great at spending someone else’s money as quickly as possible.

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