ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One year ago today, the Angora fire ignited near beautiful Lake Tahoe. With it went more than 250 homes and 3,100 acres of forest. The destroyed neighborhoods are well on their way to rebuilding, but there's a problem. Some homeowners are ignoring new state building codes designed to protect them from future fires. Tamara Keith reports from member station KQED.
TAMARA KEITH: There's an irony in the rush to rebuild. In the month of December alone, the county building department got 73 building permit applications from fire victims. That's because the new stricter building codes went into effect January 1st. In all, 60 percent of homeowners in the fire zones got their applications in in time to avoid the new building codes.
Mr. GARETH HARRIS (Battalion Chief, Lake Valley Fire District): Most definitely a large percentage of them are not adhering to it, and that was the point. That was why they applied for the building permit prior to this year.
KEITH: Gareth Harris is the battalion chief for the Lake Valley Fire District, and he's been inspecting the rebuilt homes. He says homeowners are just picking and choosing which of the new codes - called Chapter 7A - they want to follow.
Mr. HARRIS: We've supplied every one of them with a copy of Chapter 7A, and we're supporting them along in the process and highly recommending that they do utilize those construction standards in the rebuilding of their home. Frankly, they lost their home to a wildfire, and if we can do something to try and prevent that from happening in the future, that's what we're doing.
KEITH: And that's all he can do, recommend and encourage. John Pickett plans to build his family's first home on a lot he bought from a homeowner who decided not to rebuild after the fire.
Mr. JOHN PICKETT: We fall under the old building code.
KEITH: You did that on purpose?
Mr. PICKETT: Very intentionally. It was not accidental, no. This is embarrassing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KEITH: Pickett says he should know better. He does know better. He's operations manager for the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team. In his job, he works to prevent forest fires. And he will take some steps to mitigate the fact that he won't be obeying all the new building codes. Still, bottom line…
Mr. PICKETT: It is about money.
KEITH: The same is true for Donna Clark. She's checking out the progress on her new 2,500-square-foot home. She's building in the same footprint as the one that burned down.
Ms. DONNA CLARK: And then over here is our master bedroom, master bath, and a closet. Of course, I have no clothes to put in it yet, but…
(Soundbite of laughter)
KEITH: Clark says she, too, purposefully avoided the new building codes.
Ms. CLARK: We got it in by the 31st of December. We're happy.
KEITH: Happy to avoid new requirements like tempered glass in every window, fire-resistant siding, and attic vents that repel embers and flames. She says she wants to be safe, but just couldn't afford the extra cost.
Ms. CLARK: I'll tell you what. I feel bad for people who have to put in all-tempered glass.
KEITH: Like many here, Clark says she and her husband were underinsured, so the extra expense of meeting all the new building codes was just too much. Susie Kocher is a fire expert with the University of California Extension Service. She says some of the new code requirements may seem to focus on minor things like windows and vents, but she says those are entry points that make homes vulnerable to fire. She's looking at a brand new home built in the fire zone.
Ms. SUSIE KOCHER (University of California Extension Service): Yeah. Yeah, that's not good. That's your standard attic vent, and so embers can penetrate through there into the attic and burn it from the inside out.
KEITH: Kocher says that's exactly what doomed many of the homes destroyed in the Angora fire. They burned from the inside out. Part of the problem, she says, is homeowners just don't understand how fires work.
Ms. KOCHER: They picture a wall of flame, and I couldn't have done anything. Whereas a lot of the research shows that's not true. Their home could be built differently.
KEITH: And in the future, all new California homes built in high risk fire areas will have to follow the codes. The homes being built now though, Kocher says are a missed opportunity.
For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith.
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