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Some worry the goals of suburban fire prevention will clash with affordable housing goals

fire safety
Posted at 10:50 AM, Jan 21, 2022

Even for experts, watching the Marshall Fire rip through suburban neighborhoods in Colorado was a chilling indication of what wildfires are truly capable of.

"It's a good reminder that nobody is really immune," said Captain Thomas Shoots, the public information officer for CalFire in San Diego County.

No stranger to wildfires, one of his main jobs is getting the message out to the public about how fire prevention starts at home. From creating defensible space and clearing brush and wood chips near the home, to making sure everything is up to code, both homeowners and developers play a big role.

"These are privately owned properties, and so, we're really counting on folks to do their part on their property, declare around their homes to give themselves a fighting," said Shoots.

Over the next two weeks, CalFire is going to be updating the state’s fire maps for the first time since 2007. These maps designate the fire risk in every area around the state, and more urban and suburban areas are expected to rise that risk level become elevated. This will come with more restrictive building codes and higher insurance costs.

"That means that things could get harder for folks as far as buying and selling homes, as far as getting insured and we know that's always kind of the unfortunate part that comes along with it, but ultimately we, we want to encourage people to be safe," he said.

While this may seem like a strictly California issue, the conversations this is sparking represent a problem experts foresee playing out around the country in years to come –- the impasse between the need to build more homes to help the affordable housing crisis versus the need to restrict housing development for fire risk.

"We've got to put our arms around that and really wrestle and figure out what are our priorities as a society of what we need to have and how do we support families," said Lori Pfeiler, the president and CEO of the building industry association of San Diego.

She’s watched low and middle-income families get pushed out of urban centers because of home and rent prices. She believes the codes in place are solid and the answer is not making them more restrictive or expensive, but replacing older, outdated homes.

"The houses that we're building. Are more water-wise, they're more energy-efficient, they're more fire-safe and so we actually should be encouraging as many new houses as we possibly can," she said.

One thing that worries firefighters is escape corridors and overcrowding. When evacuations are ordered, people need to get out fast and congestion could be deadly. Builders believe this is possible to achieve with more collaboration between the state and developers.

"We're not the evil developer. We are the solution to building housing and we’re actually pretty good at it. We know how to realize all the goals that we would like to get to, let's work together," she said.

The issue of balancing housing needs and fire safety is complex. Moving forward, Thomas hopes the decisions made are made in the name of safety.

"It's important to remember that sometimes you have very little time to react and to evacuate, and sometimes you have no time and that fire is at your doorstep. Do you want to have a home that can potentially protect your family? At least for the few minutes while the fire's blowing to give you a chance to get out? Or do you want to have a place that's going to be a death trap? And that's really, that's really what it comes down to," said Shoots.