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Cam Noltemeyer: Buyer beware in fire country

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: September 23, 2009 7:58 p.m.
Updated: September 24, 2009 4:55 a.m.
As the Los Angeles County Fire Department reportedly set back fires to burn even some of the beloved natural area parks in La Canada neighborhoods, we at SCOPE wondered about our own city’s efforts to surround our urban area with green spaces.

It’s a great idea, but with our current poor land-use planning in high fire hazard areas, what will become of those oak chaparral woodlands in the next fire? Will they suffer the fate of our National Forest?

Only days before the outbreak of the huge Station Fire, the County of Los Angeles approved some 90 “horse ranch homes” and senior housing in the high-fire hazard area next to Towsley Canyon Park.

SCOPE vehemently opposed placing seniors in such a hazardous area.

After all, everyone knows that wildfires driven by Santa Ana winds can’t be stopped.

Just look at the 500 homes lost in Sylmar to the Sayre inferno where fire personnel had no option but to drop their hoses and run.

The Station Fire was unstoppable as it raged into canyon areas without the aid of wind.

But in a letter from the fire department, the Lyons Ranch development, located in the head of a Canyon where fires create their own wind tunnels, stated the fire department had no further comments.

Officials stated that the secondary access to the housing could be eliminated as requested by the developer, and that the houses must merely be built with fire sprinklers instead.

So the developer gets his project approval and land value increase while future residents buy housing with only one exit in a high fire hazard zone, in spite of the county regulations for two exits.

No protection for homeowners here. It’s “buyer beware!” in L.A. County.

Believe it or not, the Fillmore fire that broke out Tuesday apparently resulted from a manure pile.

Being a country girl, I know this is possible. Is this one more threat to housing in outlying areas like Lyons Ranch?

And when the next fire rushes down Lyons Canyon, pushed by a canyon-created wind tunnel as it did in the Tujunga Canyon area of the Station Fire, who will the department choose to defend?

Will limited resources force them to let some housing burn, as appears may have happened in Tujunga Canyon, while more expensive homes or cell towers are saved?

Will it be the senior housing that is protected or those expensive horse ranch houses that would not have been allowed but for the benefit of the senior housing density bonus?

Will the fire agencies choose to back-burn in Towsley Park to save these houses placed where they ought not to be?

Will all of us lose our beautiful natural “ring of green” to ensure housing is protected in fire prone areas?

What about the $2.4 million that the city of Santa Clarita recently spent to acquire the special devices property in Placerita Canyon, for its oak woodlands? Will that all be back-burned to save housing in Sand Canyon?

And last, but certainly not least, who will pay for the millions it will cost for fire protection for Lyons Ranch and other developments in such a hazardous area that will undoubtedly follow?

It will be you and me and the rest of the taxpayers in the state.

Now is the time for the county to recognize this planning disaster. Taxpayers can no longer afford the millions of dollars it costs to protect housing in these dangerous fire areas. And none of us want our special green spaces back-burned or cleared for fire protection.  

The county must rigorously enforce its own planning rules. It is high time taxpayers are protected instead of just giving developers any approval they demand.

Fires are not just devastating to homeowners. Carefully planned open spaces, wildlife corridors and rare species destroyed by wildfires or back burns may never recover.

Resource agencies must sit down with fire agencies in advance to talk about resource protection before the fire emergency occurs.
Our most sensitive areas should be saved from back-burns.

Finally, it is ironic that the Lyons Ranch approval, apparently pushed through by L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, may result in the destruction of the very open space recently named in his honor.

We can only hope we will not be saying, “We told you so!” when the next wildfire burns through this area.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) board member and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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