Friday, May 11, 2007

Can Neighborhood Councils Save Los Angeles From Burning?

Below is my article today in today's CITYWATCH:

Can Neighborhood Councils Save Los Angeles From Burning?

By Brady Westwater

Well, it has to be Neighborhood Councils because no one else in this city has the courage to demand a change from the current ostrich head in the sand attitude towards hillside fire safety.

Even as we face the potentially most disastrous fire season in history, no one in city government has suggested, much less demanded, the measures necessary to handle the present crisis. Our leaders do not seem to understand that not just hundreds, but thousands of homes will one day be lost in a single fire, wiping out entire hillside and canyon communities from Mulholland to Sunset Boulevard or from Mulholland to Ventura Boulevard – or within the hillside communities of East Los Angeles or North East Los Angeles or Elysian Park or Baldwin Hills – or within the North, East or West Valley areas.

This winter we have already watched Malibu beachfront homes burn – many of them with wood shake roofs. Then we watched the Beverly Drive fire when three homes burned or were damaged – not from the flames of the fire, but from sparks that landed on the wood shake roofs on each of the three homes. And now comes the Griffith Park fire where the only structural damage came from sparks landing on… a wood shake roof.

Three fires – all with structure damage from wood shake roofs. This is why Laguna Beach banned existing wood shake roofs by 2017 and Beverly Hills has by 2013. That is also why Beverly Hills is now considering moving that date up. As for Los Angeles – the deadline to replace wood shake roofs is … never.

Yes, our city has never felt it important enough to even try to replace existing wood shake roofs, the single greatest cause of structural fire damage in our hillside communities.

Clearly, we can no longer wait for the city council to initiate this action. Neighborhood Councils need to take the leadership role on this and on other fire safety matters.

Our city has just had the driest winter in its history, closely following one of the wettest winters, creating a bumper crop of dry brush. Added to this the LA Fire Department's admirable ability to keep most of the Santa Monica Mountains fire free for almost a half-century. The side affect of this is the brush build-up in remote areas that ensures the next major Santa Ana driven fire will be unimaginably worse than anything this city has ever seen. But only because we have failed to take the steps to protect ourselves.

This is why Steve Twining, President of the Bel Air Beverly Crest NC, and Carol Sidlow, Co-Chair of the BABCNC LND Use Committee, have agreed to serve as joint chairs of an ad-hoc Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's Congress committee to deal with the present hillside fire emergency. The Congress will be asked to approve their appointments at the May 19th LANCC meeting.

This committee will not just look at the issue of wood shake roofs. It will also take a systemic look at all building and zoning codes in the fire prone areas. They will also ask why government agencies such as the DWP, Cal Trans, and state and federal park agencies, among others, have not cleared their brush in residential areas in a timely matter.

They will also ask why government funds continue to be given to non-profits such as the Santa Monica Conservancy to buy more land when they have yet to do the necessary fire clearance to protect the lives of those who already live adjacent to their current holdings.

And they will ask why undergrounding power lines in fire areas has not been given a higher priority.

And, importantly, they will ask why have so few of recommendations of the fire report that followed 1961 Bel Air fire been implemented? Yes, 1961. It has, after all, been over forty years since those recommendations were been made.

Do we have to wait for another forty years for these reforms to take place – or we will have to wait for a fire that takes out scores of lives and thousands of homes before we take seriously the safety of LA’s hillside communities?

Or, will the Neighborhood Councils be the ones to ensure … demand … that these actions be taken now. They will have an opportunity to answer that question at LA City College on May 19th. (Brady Westwater is a professional writer and political activist. Westwater is a regular contributor to CityWatch.)

Info: The LA NC Congress (LANCC) meet next, on this and other important issues, on Saturday, May 19 at 12:30 p.m. at LA City College at Melrose and Vermont. The meeting will follow the Alliance of Neighborhood Councils Forum.

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