Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Social Capital, Climate Change and Exurban Fringe Negative Externalities: Fighting Fires Together is the New Bowling Alone

The New York Times loves to publish photos of Southern California on fire. I am surprised that they don't have the rock group REM popup and sing "its the end of the world as we know it." It is 80 degrees here today with blue skies and the smell of smoke has vanished from Westwood. I don't want to trade places with you.

Now that LA is back to being #1, it is time to think about how "bad things happen to good people". This New York Times article hints at the following interplay. Climate change means that it rains less than it used to. Lots of plants and trees are ready to catch fire. Due to bad insurance pricing, people are living too close to areas that do catch fire and aren't incentivized to take actions to minimize the probability that they start a fire.

If this part of Los Angeles had more social capital between neighbors, would people be less likely to plant bougainvillea (see the last paragraph below)?

My read of this situation is that climate change is making the exurban fringe of LA more risky and to minimize the likelihood of these events we need people to be good citizens. People are more likely to be good citizens in communities with more social capital and connectivity. While it is sexy to connect the cost of climate change to the presence of social capital, I actually think this merits some research. Bowling Alone could morph into "Fighting Fires Together".

New York Times
November 18, 2008
As Winds Quiet Down, California Fires Are Tamed


LOS ANGELES — Firefighters gained the upper hand on Monday against three blazes raging over a 130-mile stretch of Southern California, as scores of residents picked over the charred remains of their homes and state officials took a new look at how to prevent a recurrence of the destruction.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a review of building standards for manufactured homes after nearly 500 of them went up in flames in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in the San Fernando Valley over the weekend and the remaining 100 or so in the park were left badly damaged. Mr. Schwarzenegger also called for hospitals to examine their generators after the backup power system failed at a hospital in the center of that fire, north of downtown Los Angeles.

A calming of the Santa Ana winds, which helped propel the three fires that over the course of several days consumed roughly 40,000 acres and hundreds of homes and sent five counties into states of emergency, helped firefighters who were laboring mightily.

In Santa Barbara County, a fire that quickly consumed scores of luxury homes last week was almost completely under control. In the San Fernando Valley, fires were roughly 40 percent contained. In an area south of Los Angeles, fires smoldering across two counties were also about 40 percent controlled.

In all, more than 30 people were injured in the fires, three seriously, with burns and smoke inhalation.

Smoke and ash blanketed much of Los Angeles County, with schools in some areas closed and outdoor activities curtailed because of poor air quality.

Officials in the counties hit by fires said the causes were under investigation, though the Santa Barbara County fire was initially thought to be caused by people.

While California has adopted regulations that require ignition-resistant construction materials and roofs for manufactured residences outside of mobile home parks, officials said Monday that the Schwarzenegger administration would seek to tighten those regulations for homes within the parks, particularly because an increasing number of California residents have moved deeper into canyons and other areas prone to fires.

“Our focus is primarily on the manufactured housing,” said Chris Anderson, chief of field operations for the division of codes and standards at the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Mr. Anderson said he expected the state to adopt new regulations in January that would extend tougher manufacturing regulations to mobile home parks.

He said there had been “some resistance” from the mobile home industry to increased fire prevention standards, because of the increased costs. But, he said, “most people in California understand that we are in a state that has wildfires. They acknowledged they needed to do something.”

Calls and e-mail messages to a spokeswoman for the Manufactured Housing Institute, a national trade organization, were not returned Monday.

Fire experts said more residents needed to heed local ordinances and use common sense in terms of building and landscaping to prevent homes from being destroyed, a common problem in California. The combination of housing developments in increasingly remote areas and a protracted drought have resulted in devastating loss numerous times in recent years.

“You can have a lot of codes and laws and ordinances,” said Jim Smalley, a program manager for Firewise Communities, an organization that seeks to reduce wildfire risks and damage. “But the problem is that compliance with those codes is voluntary. It’s a social-contract issue, both in understanding where you live and what the hazards are and what you can do about it.”

For example, Mr. Smalley said, in Rancho Santa Fe, an area threatened by fires last year, codes prohibit planting certain types of plants near homes, but residents in subdivisions often do not comply.

“The fire department comes in and says, ‘You can’t plant bougainvillea here,’ ” he said, “and the homeowner says, ‘O.K.,’ and then they go away and they plant it anyway.”