Water fills the city of Venice after a five-day flood in southern California on March 5, 1938. The overpasses, lower left, and bridges, right center, withstood the deluge. (AP Photo)
Kayaker on the flooded campus of Fullerton College in 1938. (Photo courtesy of the Buena Park Historical Society)
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Workers fill bags with sand to repair levees along the river near Sacramento, Ca., Feb. 11, 1938. Levees were broken when high gales swept northern California Feb. 9, and the already well-filled rivers were churned into waves that broke numerous cuts in the flood-protection walls. (AP Photo)
A filling station attendant uses a rowboat to maneuver as he fills a pickup after a flood inundated Buena Park in 1938. (Photo courtesy of the Buena Park Historical Society)
Aftermath of the 1938 Santa Ana River flood.
This aerial view shows the broken water barrier of San Francisquito Canyon, Ca., after the St. Francis Dam burst on March 13, 1928. The dams reservoir of 12.5 billion gallons of water poured down the narrow canyon, carrying nearly 500 inhabitants to their deaths. (AP Photo)
Groceries that washed out through the broken windows of a supermarket by the tidal waves that swept Crescent City, Calif., are scooped by a lift truck in front of the store, March 29, 1964. The entire area of the store was swept by the huge waves that destroyed a large part of the downtown section. (AP Photo)
A luncheon for notables takes place on top of the huge, concrete spillway of the Hansen Dam during dedication ceremonies near the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 20, 1940. Built under the supervision of U.S. Army engineers, the dam will protect the valley and Los Angeles from mountain-born floods. The compacted earth-filled structure, the largest of its kind, is two miles long and 122 feet high with a gigantic spillway and control gates at the center. (AP Photo)
One of many burn out homes in the hills of Malibu Springs Tuesday morning. The Woolsey fire flare up again and burn another 1,000 acres with no homes damage. Nov 13,2018, Photo by Gene Blevins/Contributing Photographer.
In 1938, five days of rain bloated the Santa Ana River, sending it spilling over its banks, killing about 100 people in the region, sending cows paddling down streets and wiping out entire neighborhoods. The Prado Dam is one legacy of the disaster. (File photo)
A high view of the Upper Santa River shown from behind the Seven Oaks Dam on Thursday, April 21, 2016. (Staff file photo/The Sun)
A county maintenance worker moves an abandoned Ford from Pacific Coast Highway with his dozer in downtown Laguna Beach Wednesday morning, Dec 22, 2010. (KEN STEINHARDT, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER)
Tim Biglow tries to save the furnitures from the Woolsey fire in Malibu, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
FILE – This Nov. 9, 2018 file photo shows the charred remains of a home after the Woolsey fire swept through Malibu, Calif. The number of structures destroyed by a huge Southern California wildfire has risen to 1,500. Another 341 structures were damaged as of a Monday, Nov. 19, 2018 count. As firefighters mop up, repair and restoration of utilities is continuing along with repopulation of areas evacuated when winds spread the fire earlier this month. Forecasters predict rain in the area by midweek. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)
A firefighter battles the Woolsey Fire burning a home in Malibu, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Theres no word on what sparked the Woolsey Fire and smaller Hill blaze Thursday. But winds are blamed for pushing the fire through scenic canyon communities and ridgetop homes. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A Karmin Gia sits on Monday, November 12, 2018 burned on Hidden Highlands Road along Kanan Road after the Woolsey Fire burned through the area. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)
The Los Angeles riverbed at Willow was a churning force to be reckoned with as debris flowed fast during a steady and heavy rain in Long Beach on Thursday, December. 6, 2018. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)
A plane drops fire retardant behind homes along McVicker Canyon Park Road in Lake Elsinore as the Holy fire burned near homes Aug. 9, 2018. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
FILE – In this Nov. 9, 2018 file photo, firefighter Jose Corona sprays water as flames from the Camp Fire consume a home in Magalia, Calif. A massive new federal report warns that extreme weather disasters, like Californias wildfires and 2018s hurricanes, are worsening in the United States. The White House report quietly issued Friday, Nov. 23 also frequently contradicts President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
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Flooding has never been reason enough to halt development in California. Instead, flood control was embraced as a way to keep progress moving ahead.
So why should wildfires curtail development?
California wildfires scorched 1.9 million acres last year — as much land as Delaware and Rhode Island combined — destroying thousands of California homes and killing more than 100 people. The fires sparked lots of conversation about banning or restricting new home construction in high-risk fire zones.
But this anti-building rhetoric runs in the face of how California has historically tackled other natural disasters, specifically floods. Instead of curbing construction, the state tapped government protections for homeowners and grew its population and economy to be the nations largest.
Dont get me wrong, the states wildfire risks are very real. Full disclosure: Wildfires strike home for me, too. For the past quarter-century, Ive lived in a one of those fire-prone community in south Orange Countys foothills. I know we can do better to protect citizens from such fires, one of the many natural hazards that confront many of us who call California home.
Theres a serious need for prevention and mitigation efforts to be incorporated into modern real state planning — from neighborhood design to building codes to brush maintenance and risk-education for residents.
Many Californians are at risk. According to real estate tracker CoreLogic, 32 percent of properties statewide have flood danger vs. 8.3 percent with wildfire concerns. But CoreLogic analysts emphasize the large difference of destructiveness: Typically, wildfires result in total losses for homes while flood damage is more modest.
But in a state where housing is seen as an economic priority, who should pay to significantly lower wildfire risk?
Like many infrastructure needs, todays world seems to demand new properties owners pay for much of developments costs.
That typically includes basic and expected infrastructure expenses — community roads, water, sewage, electricity, etc. But the tab often also encompasses paying for much of the broader, growing neighborhood needs, too — schooling, first responders, connection roads and recreation. New neighborhoods also can be forced to build (and pay for) rainwater collection tools to lower the flood control burdens downstream.
Should wildfire protection be treated in this pay-if-you-come way, too, when another huge real estate risk — flood — is managed with public funds? And dont forget another flooding hazard: the costs of keeping the ocean from chewing up seaside real estate.
Wildfire management is a classic example of how Californian opinion on development has changed. In those overly revered early boom times, government dollars were invested in building the community infrastructure to get folks to move to California: everything from schools to fire stations to boulevards and ballfields. Oh, and flood control.
Today, many of those costs are foisted on the families who want to settle in a new community — driving housing costs skyward. Is that fair?
Ponder Californias long-time residents. Homeowners benefited from various forms of community-building efforts once paid for by the government. Oh, and their property taxes are low, thanks to Proposition 13. And if theyre “flatlanders” living in the regions basins, well, their housing stays dry thanks to huge government-funded flood-control spending.
A history lesson[hhmc]
First of all, Californias topography isnt kind to human habitation, even as it houses nearly 40 million people.
Sky-high and relatively lush mountains — with typically heavy snowpack — have steep foothills below that adjoin low-lying basins too close to the ocean. Its a watery recipe for frequent springtime floods. It means an untamed Santa Ana River, for example, would be one of the nations biggest flood risks.
The geological misfortunes translate to a long-running headache for California. One of the first written accounts of California floods was in Spanish missionary Father Juan Crespis diary detailing the livability challenges of the unsettled Los Angeles basin in 1769-70.
And do you remember the Great Flood of 1862?
The history books remind us that late that winter it rained for almost a month straight. The states topography isnt built to hold that much water.
Thankfully, California was sparsely populated back then.
Reports say the rushing Santa Ana River overflowed, wiping out farming enclaves between the San Bernardino Mountains and Orange County. As the flood waters approached the ocean, they created a huge inland lake — swamping much of what today is Santa Ana and Anaheim.
Up north, Sacramento was so overwhelmed with water that state government moved to San Francisco. And governing became tricky; estimates at the time suggested one-quarter of the states taxable property was destroyed and shrinking tax collections nearly bankrupted the state.
Fast forward to winter 1938 as California was starting to gain traction as an economic powerhouse.
Five days of heavy rain in Southern California basin pushed the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers over their banks. The Ventura River was said to have grown to nearly a mile in width. More than a hundred people died across the region. Thousands of structures were destroyed.
River-close towns north of L.A. and in the Inland Empire were devastated. In places such as Santa Ana and Compton, thriving neighborhoods were turned into lakes.
Transportation was a mess. Local rail lines — yes, those trollies — were damaged. Interstate travel — it was rail in that era — was cut off. In some communities, life was so impassable the Coast Guard helped with mail delivery.
A rapid response[hhmc]
The same waters that fueled the states agricultural legacy often turn destructive and deadly.
And after 1938 there was no ban on expansion — rather an expensive, development of massive flood-control measures that have been amplified over the years.
Much of the financial burden of such projects that greatly muted flood risks were not placed on the individual property owners in flood-prone neighborhoods. Rather, the tab was typically spread amongst regional, state and federal taxpayers.
All this infrastructure cannot fully protect all Californians. But flood risks are still so collectively high that most private insurers wont offer a policy against such a watery risk. So, its left to the federally backed National Flood Insurance Program to be the primary financial backstop for flood risks. Its policies paid 11,483 Californians a total of $219 million from 1996-2016.
The bottom line is that if it wasnt for all this government support, the risks of having real estate and related assets frequently washed away would have cooled what became monumental statewide development.
Nothing symbolizes that post-1938 flood-control push more than the Prado Dam where the Santa Ana River snakes past the edge of the Saddleback Mountains at the border of Orange and Riverside counties. That project alone made a major dent in flood risks, but other lower-profile work — strengthening river beds with concrete and streamlining river flow — helped throttle what would be flooding in years to come.
That safety net protected the region for what was judged to be a one-in-50-year flood. But killer floods in 1969 prompted a move to basically double the level of protection.
There was a rough doubling-down on the size of the Prado Dam. And then theres the addition of the Seven Oaks Dam on the Santa Ana River near Mentone. Its a half-billion-bucks of walls up to 50-stories high protecting an estimated 2 million properties by keeping mountain rainwater from ever reaching the Prado Dam.
The bottom line[hhmc]
Lets tackle wildfire risk like we fought floods.
Be proactive and smart. Dont view wildfire suppression with some sort of cost-containment logic. Invest in mitigation and firefighting not only on an event-by-event basis but with long-term vision.
Challenge government and industry alike to find new ways to lower the hazard. Lets spend to have resources — man and material — ready so begging isnt required when misfortune strikes.
If investment means taxpayer dollars are going to create permanent firebreaks or the like to protect homes as we did with concreting river bottoms for floods, so be it. If wildness must be pruned, lets do it.
See the costs as worthwhile insurance, not wasteful spending.
Think fire, think flood. The Seven Oaks Dam protects us from a watery disaster that might hit, say, once in a 100 years. Wholl complain if that protection is never used?
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