The homeowner and the fire

The homeowner whose house four firefighters died protecting in the Esperanza fire has a profile in the LAT today. It’s a second home, in which he invested years of work and where he stored a collection of Indian artifacts and antique cars even though, in his words, “there are quite a few fires up there”, one of which was stopped only 800 feet from the house.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

14 thoughts on “The homeowner and the fire”

  1. This would certainly encourage me, were I a firefighter, to practice tax-bracket triage in wildfire situations.
    My ass versus his '39 Cord? Not a tough question. I bet many fire departments are discussin this issue as I write this.

  2. What's the matter with you? Are you seriously suggesting that these firefighters died to protect antique cars? They died because wind conditions were unpredictable and they misjudged the fire. It happens even in unpopulated areas. Are you suggesting that only rich people's second homes exist in these areas? Haven't you seen the many people interviewed on the news who have lost everything they owned? There are many poor and subsistence living people in these rural areas too, many elderly. People live in such areas because they keep livestock. Many are mourning the loss of their animals, not just antique cars.
    Doctors have an ethic to treat everyone, without making judgments about who is worthy to live. Triage is about ability to help, not worth of the person. Fire doesn't care what it burns. All firefighters are trained to protect life first, including their own. These firefighters were caught in a situation they would have avoided if they had recognized it sooner, leaving the "second home" to burn, as 25+ other homes burned. Perhaps you are thinking that a wildfire in Santa Ana winds, rough terrain and brush is similar to a house fire in a populated area — just sitting there and letting you pour water on it? Read a little bit about fighting such fires.

  3. I don't find any such implication in Mr. O'Hare's post. I've looked again and it's still not there. If you found it, it's because you brought it with you.

  4. I don't understand what the point of the post was. Please explain it to me. I can't see how it makes any difference what those firefighters were defending. And why should I care if some guy has a second home and keeps antique cars?

  5. Nancy, the proliferation of second homes in fire-prone landscapes is an enormous problem, in which large amounts of resources are spent protecting the second homes rather than fighting the fire…
    …takes deep breath…
    culling snags, thinning small-diameter stems to lessen the risk of catastrophic fire, developing markets for this small-diameter wood, protecting the lives of those who live there year round, eradicating bark beetles…
    …takes deep breath…
    restoring watersheds damaged by lack of oversight of previous logging operations, restoring landscapes degraded by previous fires, eliminating the need to harvest logs on public land to pay for watershed restoration or maintenance on backlogged projects…
    …takes deep breath…
    Ah, that's enough.
    I hope you get our drift.

  6. nancy, the problem is that the art collection and the house and the cars were placed in large predictable jeopardy known to the owner, who also knew that when a fire occurred, public resources and brave people would risk lives and treasure to save his house, simply because he found it pleasurable to be there when it wasn't on fire.
    Do you think mountain climbers who go out in bad weather without the right equipment have any responsibility when rescuers are hurt or killed trying to save them? Are people right to do any kind of dumb thing and expect the rest of us to bail them out?

  7. I think you are on shaky ground when you suggest that anyone shouldn't live a particular place, and then imply that they are responsible for fire-fighter deaths when a disaster occurs. You perhaps do not recall the Bel Aire fires, fires in the Hollywood Hills, fires in Irvine and other areas people think of as part of the city. None of California is exempt from the brush-clearing fire regulations. Further, are you going to call people responsible for first responder deaths when an earthquake occurs, because they were foolish enough to build in a place where that is a hazard? Are the residents of New Orleans responsible for deaths and injuries to responders there?
    All of this area is chapparal desert, no exceptions for populated areas where you guys live. The edges have moved outward but there have always been edges to populated areas.
    Unless you live in the semi-rural areas of CA, you may not realize that the folks there are not second-home owners. They are elderly and retired folks, people with horses, people who prefer subsistence living in a natural area to commuting and high cost of living, people who can't afford to live elsewhere, plus a bunch of military (since bases are located near the areas that are now burning).
    This is a natural disaster, part of the life cycle of the vegetation, exacerbated by global warming, but it is not the fault of the people who live there. It can and does happen in the city too, with less opportunity to gain a foothold because there is less brush to burn there and perhaps quicker response and easier firefighting conditions.
    I find it ludicrous to suggest that this is about second homes. Fire fighters die because fires are dangerous, not because some guy owns antique cars. And I see that I was correct in my reading of the original post. I remain offended that anyone would blame the victims of this fire for the deaths of firefighters who would be fighting the fire whether they lived there of not. It isn't that they made a last stand to protect this guy's house. They got caught when the wind shifted and the fire moved too quickly for them to flee.

  8. No Nancy I don't see that in the post. Perhaps that is because no conclusions or judgements were made?
    I do think there is ample room for review of the decisions made in fighting these fires, though I find it hard to see how firefighters could be responsible for identifying second homes. Even if it were easy, it would likely not get done because big money is involved.
    Responsibility for the fire certainly may not rest with the homeowner, but he is responsible for the decisions he made and the work he probably didn't do to protect his home. No he isn't responsible for the death of the firefighters.
    I'd love to have the money to have a second home, and there are few places more lovely and temperate to have one than out here in California. If I ever get to the point where I can have one, a high priority for me would be a fire defense plan because I can't remember a time when I haven't heard of wildfires out here.
    IMHO he isn't responsible, but those deaths are all the more a shame for the fact that they were defending a second home in a fire prone area.

  9. Re "firefighters who would be fighting the fire whether they [home dwellers] lived there of not" — that's the question that sprung to mind as soon as I heard of the firefighters' deaths, and I haven't yet heard it answered. In other words, to what degree WAS their entrapment by this fast-moving fire a function of their attempt to save this particular house?

  10. Post Katrina, many voices were heard saying that the worst affected areas should not be rebuilt. After all, this is only going to happen again and why should municipal resources go to protecting people who build in harms way.
    I eagerly await the flood of similar calls I just know is coming in the wake of these wildfires.
    I feel badly for anyone who loses their home. I can't muster a lot of sympathy for the loss of a second home located in an area known for being prone to disasters.
    And my heart goes out to the firefighters who died in the line of duty.

  11. Nancy,
    I read it exactly the same way you did. Firefighters are expected to protect themselves before any of the property. It was their misjudgement that caused their unfortunate deaths. The debate over secons homes is silly.

  12. Wildfires are fought by finding a defensible perimeter downwind, and removing fuel with bulldozers, handwork, or backfires so the fire will stop when it gets there. A defensible perimeter is a place with a natural barrier (if possible), that's safe to work in (not too steep) and evacuable if necessary. What's between the fire and the chosen defense line is allowed to burn out.
    However, it's also standard policy to protect structures if possible when they exist; I haven't seen a detailed topo map of this fire but it's certain that that team would not have been where they were if there weren't a house. They would have been working back on the fire line, and in much less danger.

  13. I say the same thing about the houses that fall off cliffs every year when it rains and I hear about some public fund to rebuild them (whether they actually receive any public money, I don't know). If houses didn't fall off the cliffs every year then I could understand rebuilding, but getting fooled twice? The shame is on you.
    Also, lets not confuse the 500 year disaster that will level California to wild fires, rain and other yearly events.

  14. >I find it ludicrous to suggest that this is about second homes. …the deaths of firefighters who would be fighting the fire whether they lived there of not. It isn't that they made a last stand to protect this guy's house. They got caught when **the wind shifted and the fire moved too quickly for them to flee.** < [emphasis added]
    Flee a fire coming upon an insured burning second home built in a fire-prone environment.
    The larger socioecological issue is increasing population, with increasing wealth, building homes farther and farther out. Into fire-prone landscapes. That are insured. And resources spent protecting homes rather than…what was it I said above…ah, never mind. Folks have scroll wheels.

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