Check out the page one photo on the Thursday, Oct. 25 front page of the New York Times. It shows two rows of completely destroyed homes in San Diego, and two virtually untouched homes right in the midst of them.
The caption makes no mention of it, and indeed in news story after news story, reporters talk about the seemingly whimsical way the fire destroys some houses while bypassing others, but what the two homes in that photo that are seemingly unscathed have in common is red tile roofs.
This is not fickle fate at work; it is common sense.
Yet developers and home buyers, to keep their costs down, continue to put shake (wood) or asphalt shingles on houses in places like Southern California, where grass and forest fires are predictable annual events.
It's the western equivalent of homeowners and developers in the eastern US who persist in building homes on flood plains or along the coast at sea level.
How stupid can insurance companies be, when it comes to that?
I'm reading that there are complaints about lack of adequate fire-fighting equipment and personnel in San Diego, where there is no county fire department, but I have yet to see one article looking at how many of those houses that were lost had flammable roof materials.
In suburban Southern California, you don't have deep forests, where burning trees will fall down on houses and spread fires. Basically, fires spread there in two ways: grass fires bring flames up to a house, which if it is constructed of flammable wood, will then succumb to the flames, or else, burning cinders, sent aloft by a firestorm, will drop on rooftops and ignite the roofing material, burning down the house.
A house that has stucco on its walls and red tile shingles on its roof is not very vulnerable to either of those things. Unless a car is left in the driveway and blows up, igniting the garage, or a tree falls on the house, it will sit there and the fire will sweep right by it.
So you have to wonder, why don't all Californians all use tile roofing? Granted it's more expensive, but over the life of a house, the difference in materials cost isn't that much. Besides, tile lasts virtually forever, so you don't have to replace it after 15 years the way you have to do with shingles.
This is true even though the black and poor victims of Katrina were living as best they could in a largely segregated city that kept most of them living below sea level, while many of the victims of the Southern California fires are wealthy people who made some bad choices in the design and construction of their homes.
I think it's a scandal that fire fighters have to risk life and limb rescuing people and property when much of the risk to those people and homes has been self-inflicted.
DAVE LINDORFF is a journalist based in the Philadelphia area, where he is nearly finished re-shingling his own stone house’s roof (with 30-year asphalt shingles). He hopes that the region continues to have sufficient rainfall that forest fires do not become a problem where he lives. Lindorff’s work can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net