Paradise RIdge destruction

The rush to rebuild: Local reaction to disasters perpetuates a vicious cycle and sacrifices safety

The truism that things only change after a disaster is once again proved false. While it is comforting to believe that following the destruction of thousands of homes – in northern California, in southern Oregon, in the Front Range of Colorado – that rebuilding will happen carefully, with all precautions against future wildfires put in place, it simply isn’t happening. Why not? 

A recent op-ed by a resident of Talent, Oregon, points to the ugly truth. Along with many others, he was evacuated during a major wildfire that entered town. In mourning the devastating loss of more than 600 homes, he noted that the wildfire became an urban conflagration – a disaster fueled by structures, not trees – when it entered the town. He wrote “As an evacuee, it’s only natural for me to feel angry about the abject neglect for public safety that could have been avoided with proper planning by elected officials in a region that is feeling unprecedented pain.” 

State and local officials in wildfire-prone areas have kicked the regulatory can down the road for so long, it’s almost as if they don’t realize there are alternatives to the brutal cycle of build, burn, repeat. The stale, unsupported arguments against sound safety standards and land use planning come down to this: it costs too much. But who is it costing? And how much is too much? Has anyone calculated the cost to future generations of building substandard housing intended to last 50-100 years, that may burn to the ground in a decade or two? 

Recent articles have revealed that communities devastated by disaster aren’t rebuilding safely because state and local officials have abdicated their responsibility for public safety, bowing to pressure to maintain the increasingly hazardous status quo. As soon as special interests from the building industry raise the specter of “too expensive,” it shuts down any meaningful debate or change. These articles ponder the failure of governments to enact sensible building codes and zoning, highlighting the arguments put forward by builders. They warn of tens of thousands of dollars added to the cost of building a new home but provide no basis for these figures. They preach that Americans have the right to build where and how they want, and that people are smart enough to figure out how to build safely without “onerous” or “draconian” rules governing new home construction and siting.

Research by NFPA and others demonstrate how off-base these kinds of statements are. In 2018, Headwaters Economics and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety demonstrated that new homes built to meet wildfire safety codes cost no more than – or even less than – the same type of home built with combustible materials and elements. In 2017, NFPA commissioned an independent survey of 1,000 Americans, showing that 8 in 10 adults assume their homes met the most up-to-date codes when constructed, and even more of them (86%) were confident that if they built a newly constructed home, it would meet the most up-to-date fire and electrical safety codes. What a shock, then, for people who lose everything they own to wildfire to learn that the government they trusted with their safety has done absolutely nothing to secure it.  

NFPA and other code-making organizations have sound, science-based standards available for local jurisdictions to address the serious and growing threats that wildfire poses to life, property and the fabric of our communities. But these standards do no good unless they are used and enforced. In the aftermath of wildfire disasters, when the desire to rebuild and “get back to normal” is overwhelming, new regulations are an extremely hard sell. But to end the vicious cycle of rebuilding with inadequate safety measures, state and local governments must act now. The security of our children and grandchildren depends upon it.  

Photo: Michele Steinberg, Paradise Ridge Destruction

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Michele Steinberg
Director, Wildfire Division, Disaster safety educator, land use planning advocate. Believes we can end home destruction from wildfires.

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