still from LAFD's 1962 film "Design for Disaster"

still from LAFD's 1962 film "Design for Disaster"

With the LA region experiencing four large fires, I wanted to share hopes that damage to life and property can be limited. I also wanted to note how Los Angeles responded to past wildfires.  

The City of Los Angeles first generally applicable building code, like Ordinance 66, from 1883, were essentially expanded fire district codes: “An ordinance… for the protection of life and property from fire, and regulations concerning the erection of buildings.”  Post WW2 residential development in the hillsides raised the specter of widespread risk from wildfires. As Stephen Pyne writes in Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire.

“Particularly in more exclusive developments.. The brush was considered part of the natural aesthetics of the scene, a barrier between wealthy and merely affluent suburbs and a stabilizing agent for watersheds. The very exclusivity of the districts precluded further developments as undesirable [maintaining natural areas adjacent to homes].. At the same time, construction and design practices- notably the reintroduction of wood shingle roofs- made the houses far more receptive to the firebrands [flying embers, burning branches etc] than they should have been and contributed an unusually high proportion of firebrands in return. The greatest cause of urban conflagrations has been wooden roofs.”

By the late 1950s, the Los Angeles Fire Department and national agonies and organizations had noted the high risk of building and living in Santa Monica mountains. The Bel Air fire of November 1961, which destroyed almost 500 homes, led to a number of reforms to building codes, new requirements for property owners and marketing by companies trying to sell security to worried homeowners.

 In 1962, the Los Angeles Fire Department released a 26 min film ”Designed for Disaster” that showed how roof shakes, inadequate water pressure and brush close to homes had raised the risk of fire and made it harder to fight. During debates over wood shake roofs, which had become popular “rustic” (and inexpensive) roof coverings for ranch style-homes, the wood shingle industry was on the defensive while cement roof tile companies worked with fire departments and fire insurance organizations to highlight the risks of flying shingles.

 LA City banned roofs made from untreated wood shakes/shingles in 1962/3, treated wood shingles without an additional fireproof layer in 1979, and all wood roofs in 1982. A new ordinance requiring homeowners in high fire districts to clear brush within 100 feet of structures was passed in 1968. Code changes also addressed openings under the eaves of roofs, limited the size of balconies, and required more aggressive fireproofing and enclosure of metal supports and the undersides of cantilevered houses. (The construction of hillside ‘stilt homes,’ an iconic LA housing type, was basically banned by these building code changes.)

Entrepreneurs also began marketing swimming pool pumps, rooftop sprinklers and other products to help worried hillside homeowners protect their property. In the archives of a Santa Monica Mountain homeowners group I’ve looked at, there were brochures for items like ‘Fire Pak’, ‘Waterous Floto-pump,’ and ‘Fire Guard.’

The brief lesson is that major disasters like fires, landslides and earthquakes can become, in Thomas Birkland’s words, “focusing events” that grab the attention of decision-makers and the public, leading to policy responses.