Why doesn’t California treat wildfire hazards like it treats floods?

  • Kayaker on the flooded campus of Fullerton College in 1938.
    (Photo courtesy of the Buena Park Historical Society)

  • A filling station attendant uses a rowboat to maneuver as he
    fills a pickup after a flood inundated Buena Park in 1938. (Photo
    courtesy of the Buena Park Historical Society)

  • Sound
    The gallery will resume inseconds
  • Aftermath of the 1938 Santa Ana River flood.

  • One of many burn out homes in the hills of Malibu Springs
    Tuesday morning. The Woolsey fire flare up again and burn another
    1,000 acres with no homes damage. Nov 13,2018, Photo by Gene
    Blevins/Contributing Photographer.

  • In 1938, five days of rain bloated the Santa Ana River, sending
    it spilling over its banks, killing about 100 people in the region,
    sending cows paddling down streets and wiping out entire
    neighborhoods. The Prado Dam is one legacy of the disaster. (File

  • A county maintenance worker moves an abandoned Ford from Pacific
    Coast Highway with his dozer in downtown Laguna Beach Wednesday
    morning, Dec 22, 2010. (KEN STEINHARDT, THE ORANGE COUNTY

  • A Karmin Gia sits on Monday, November 12, 2018 burned on Hidden
    Highlands Road along Kanan Road after the Woolsey Fire burned
    through the area. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena

  • The Los Angeles riverbed at Willow was a churning force to be
    reckoned with as debris flowed fast during a steady and heavy rain
    in Long Beach on Thursday, December. 6, 2018. (Photo by Brittany
    Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • A plane drops fire retardant behind homes along McVicker Canyon
    Park Road in Lake Elsinore as the Holy fire burned near homes Aug.
    9, 2018. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Knowing it would be a monochromatic scene of ash and soot after
    being destroyed by the Camp Fire, Cindy Hoover brought a bouquet of
    flowers as she and her husband John Christensen returned home for
    the first time in Paradise on Dec. 5. They left the flowers on
    their picnic table, one of the few things that survived. (Karl
    Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • PARADISE, CA – NOVEMBER 09: Sacramento Metropolitan
    firefighters battle the Camp Fire in Magalia, Calif., Friday,
    November 9, 2018. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

    firefighters battle a Camp Fire on Honey Run Road in Paradise,
    Calif., on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News

  • PARADISE, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 6: The Cypress Meadows
    Post-Acute nursing facility sits in ruins, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018,
    in Paradise, Calif., one month after being destroyed in the deadly
    Camp Fire. The staff reports that they were able to safely evacuate
    all their patients. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Show Caption



Flooding has never been reason enough to halt development in
California. Instead, flood control was embraced as a way to keep
progress moving ahead.

So why should wildfires curtail development?

California wildfires scorched 1.9 million acres last year,
destroying thousands of California homes and killing more than 100
people. The fires sparked lots of conversation about banning or
restricting new home construction in high-risk fire zones.

But this anti-building rhetoric runs in the face of how
California has historically tackled other natural disasters,
specifically floods. Instead of curbing construction, the state
tapped government protections for homeowners and grew its
population and economy to be the nation’s largest.

Don’t get me wrong, the state’s wildfire risks are very
real. Full disclosure: Wildfires strike home for me, too. For the
past quarter-century, I’ve lived in a one of those fire-prone
community in south Orange County’s foothills. I know we can do
better to protect citizens from such fires, one of the many natural
hazards that confront many of us who call California home.

There’s a serious need for prevention and mitigation efforts
to be incorporated into modern real state planning — from
neighborhood design to building codes to brush maintenance and
risk-education for residents.

But in a state where housing is seen as an economic priority,
who should pay to significantly lower wildfire risk?

Like many infrastructure needs, today’s world seems to demand
new properties owners pay for much of development’s costs.

That typically includes basic and expected infrastructure
expenses — community roads, water, sewage, electricity, etc. But
the tab often also encompasses paying for much of the broader,
growing neighborhood needs, too — schooling, first responders,
connection roads and recreation. New neighborhoods also can be
forced to build (and pay for) rainwater collection tools to lower
the flood control burdens downstream.

Should wildfire protection be treated in this pay-if-you-come
way, too, when another huge real estate risk — flood — is
managed with public funds? And don’t forget another flooding
hazard: the costs of keeping the ocean from chewing up seaside real

Wildfire management is a classic example of how Californian
opinion on development has changed. In those overly revered early
boom times, government dollars were invested in building the
community infrastructure to get folks to move to California:
everything from schools to fire stations to boulevards and
ballfields. Oh, and flood control.

Today, many of those costs are foisted on the families who want
to settle in a new community — driving housing costs skyward. Is
that fair?

Ponder California’s long-time residents. Homeowners benefited
from various forms of community-building efforts once paid for by
the government. Oh, and their property taxes are low, thanks to
Proposition 13. And if they’re “flatlanders” living in the
region’s basins, well, their housing stays dry thanks to huge
government-funded flood-control spending.

A history lesson

First of all, California’s topography isn’t kind to human
habitation, even as it houses nearly 40 million people.

Sky-high and relatively lush mountains — with typically heavy
snowpack — have steep foothills below that adjoin low-lying
basins too close to the ocean. It’s a watery recipe for frequent
springtime floods. It means an untamed Santa Ana River, for
example, would be one of the nation’s biggest flood risks.

The geological misfortunes translate to a long-running headache
for California. One of the first written accounts of California
floods was in Spanish missionary Father Juan Crespi’s diary
detailing the livability challenges of the unsettled Los Angeles
basin in 1769-70.

And do you remember the Great Flood of 1862?

The history books remind us that late that winter it rained for
almost a month straight. The state’s topography isn’t built to
hold that much water.

Thankfully, California was sparsely populated back then.

Reports say the rushing Santa Ana River overflowed, wiping out
farming enclaves between the San Bernardino Mountains and Orange
County. As the flood waters approached the ocean, they created a
huge inland lake — swamping much of what today is Santa Ana and

Up north, Sacramento was so overwhelmed with water that state
government moved to San Francisco. And governing became tricky;
estimates at the time suggested one-quarter of the states’
taxable property was destroyed and shrinking tax collections nearly
bankrupted the state.

Fast forward to winter 1938 as California was starting to gain
traction as an economic powerhouse.

Five days of heavy rain in Southern California basin pushed the
Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers over their banks. The Ventura
River was said to have grown to nearly a mile in width. More than a
hundred people died across the region. Thousands of structures were

River-close towns north of L.A. and in the Inland Empire were
devastated. In places such as Santa Ana and Compton, thriving
neighborhoods were turned into lakes.

Transportation was a mess. Local rail lines — yes, those
trollies — were damaged. Interstate travel — it was rail in
that era — was cut off. In some communities, life was so
impassable the Coast Guard helped with mail delivery.

A rapid response

The same waters that fueled the state’s agricultural legacy
often turn destructive and deadly.

And after 1938 there was no ban on expansion — rather an
expensive, development of massive flood-control measures that have
been amplified over the years.

Much of the financial burden of such projects that greatly muted
flood risks were not placed on the individual property owners in
flood-prone neighborhoods. Rather, the tab was typically spread
amongst regional, state and federal taxpayers.

All this infrastructure cannot fully protect all Californians.
But flood risks are still so collectively high that most private
insurers won’t offer a policy against such a watery risk. So,
it’s left to the federally backed National Flood Insurance
Program to be the primary financial backstop for flood risks. Its
policies paid 11,483 Californians a total of $219 million from

The bottom line is that if it wasn’t for all this government
support, the risks of having real estate and related assets
frequently washed away would have cooled what became monumental
statewide development.

Nothing symbolizes that post-1938 flood-control push more than
the Prado Dam where the Santa Ana River snakes past the edge of the
Saddleback Mountains at the border of Orange and Riverside
counties. That project alone made a major dent in flood risks, but
other lower-profile work — strengthening river beds with concrete
and streamlining river flow — helped throttle what would be
flooding in years to come.

That safety net protected the region for what was judged to be a
one-in-50-year flood. But killer floods in 1969 prompted a move to
basically double the level of protection.

There was a rough doubling-down on the size of the Prado Dam.
And then there’s the addition of the Seven Oaks Dam on the Santa
Ana River near Mentone. It’s a half-billion-bucks of walls up to
50-stories high protecting an estimated 2 million properties by
keeping mountain rainwater from ever reaching the Prado Dam.

The bottom line

Let’s tackle wildfire risk like we fought floods.

Be proactive and smart. Don’t view wildfire suppression with
some sort of cost-containment logic. Invest in mitigation and
firefighting not only on an event-by-event basis but with long-term

Related Articles

Challenge government and industry alike to find new ways to lower
the hazard. Let’s spend to have resources — man and material
— ready so begging isn’t required when misfortune strikes.

If investment means taxpayer dollars are going to create
permanent firebreaks or the like to protect homes as we did with
concreting river bottoms for floods, so be it. If wildness must be
pruned, let’s do it.

See the costs as worthwhile insurance, not wasteful

Think fire, think flood. The Seven Oaks Dam protects us from a
watery disaster that might hit, say, once in a 100 years. Who’ll
complain if that protection is never used?

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Why doesn’t California treat wildfire hazards like it treats floods?