Californians pay price of communing with nature

LOS ANGELES, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Iain Blair lost a close friend to a devastating 1993 blaze in his rural Los Angeles canyon community.

Sarah Tippit fled for her life four years ago as flames jumped a highway and burned 11 homes in her idyllic San Diego neighborhood of Tierrasanta, known to locals as the "island in the hills."

Both Blair and Tippit returned to their homes afterward, and on Tuesday both were anxious, packed and ready to leave as fires raging out of control threatened their homes once again.

An estimated 1,500 homes burned and about 500,000 people were evacuated as some 17 blazes turned blue October skies brown and orange across Southern California.

But even those terrified or displaced most likely will return to homes built close to nature or teetering on stilts on ocean bluffs because threats of fire, mudslides and earthquakes are seen as a price worth paying.

Living in scenic canyons can be especially appealing but also especially dangerous during fires. The narrow canyons form a funnel through which winds and fire whip through, making it difficult for for residents to escape along winding roads or sometimes one-way roads.

"I am looking out the window across 18,000 acres (7,284 hectares) of wilderness," Blair said from his home in Topanga Canyon between the Pacific Ocean and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. "Every morning, I see deer, hawks, the occasional mountain lion and bobcats. But I am only 20 minutes from civilization.

"People want to live in beautiful surroundings wherever they are. I think most people refuse to live by fear," said Blair, a writer and musician.

The burgeoning Southern California population over the past 20 years has seen once arid brushland turned into vast relatively inexpensive housing developments.


"People tend to live where they can afford it and real estate is very expensive around here," said John Bullock, 48, sitting out the fire at San Diego's Qualcomm sports stadium after leaving his Spring Valley home.

Others have sought refuge from urban sprawl and busy freeways by moving into forest communities with romantic names like Running Springs and Harmony Grove.

In celebrity-heavy beach cities like Malibu, multimillion-dollar villas on mountain peaks jostle for views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. More than 20 homes and businesses were burned in Malibu on Sunday.

Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute and a wildland fire researcher, said fire safety was rarely part of housing planning decisions.

"We are so hung up on property rights. That would be fine but fire protection is seen by a lot of people as a right. It's not. It's a privilege," Halsey said.

Residents in fire-prone areas are told to clear away brush from the perimeter of their homes. But Halsey said that was not enough because most homes burn from the inside when flying embers enter through ventilation systems.

"They are trying to make the landscape safe, and that is impossible," he said.

Tippit, a former Reuters reporter who is now an artist, could see the vast San Diego County blaze from her home nestled at the foot of a canyon.

"We are in danger because if it hits Scripps Ranch then it will come straight down the canyon to us. That's what happened in the 2003 fire," she said.

Tippit's home survived that blaze but many of those that were destroyed have been rebuilt, or families made homeless have moved to new places nearby.

"I think a lot of people didn't believe it would happen again in the same spot," she said.

Additional reporting by Dana Ford in San Diego