Fire-resistant homes, private firefighters, public goods, and inequality

Perhaps designing a home that can hold off wildfires is not the best way to go. Instead, just hire your own team of firefighters:

As multiple devastating wildfires raged across California, a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, TMZ reported this week. The successful defense of the $50 million mansion is the most prominent example of a trend that’s begun to receive national attention: for-hire firefighters protecting homes, usually on the payroll of an insurance company with a lot at risk.

The prominence of celebrities in the story may attract controversy but the use of private firefighters is part of a larger trend:

The National Wildfire Suppression Association represents 250 private wildfire-fighting companies, who provide on-demand services to federal, state, and local governments. Budget cuts have forced privatization onto the Forest Service, as the NWSA itself explains. “The emergence of private contract resources—national and regional 20-person firefighting crews, engines, dozers, tenders and other specialized equipment, and support services such as caterers and shower/handwashing units—gives agencies the flexibility they need to increase or decrease support with the most cost effective solution,” the NWSA media backgrounder says.

While Americans generally think certain public goods should be available to all or many (though this is notably missing in certain areas, such as a right to housing), those with wealth often can access different options or better versions of what the public can use. A historian puts it this way:

“Are the present examples (Kanye West et al.) the thin end of a wedge that will lead to the wealthy buying better services in all these realms: education, policing, healthcare, firefighting?” Bailey wondered. “Or are we already a long way down this path?”

I wonder if Americans feel differently about natural disasters, sometimes termed “acts of God.” It is hard for anyone to completely prepare or defend against major disasters including flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires. The wealthy can rebuild and recover more easily but only so much can be done in these situations. This differs from more typical goods or public services people can access where we have much less conversation about buying into higher levels of service or quality.

Building celebrity mansions that can stave off wildfires

The Woolsey Fire in southern California has claimed the large homes of numerous celebrities:

Early Monday morning, Cyrus tweeted that her Malibu home — a $2.5 million mansion she purchased with her fiance, Liam Hemsworth, in 2016 — had been destroyed. The Woolsey Fire, which has been burning swaths of Los Angeles and Ventura counties in Southern California since Thursday, has forced evacuations and threatened thousands of homes from Thousand Oaks to Malibu…

Butler focused the camera on the charred frame of his former house, surrounded by ash and the blackened shell of a truck…

In a post on his website, Young stated that he had just lost “another” house to a California fire, referring to the Malibu home he shared with Daryl Hannah…

As The Post’s Sonia Rao reported, the historic Paramount Ranch production set in Agoura Hills burned on Friday, while wildfire threatened the nearby homes of a slew of celebrities, including Guillermo del Toro, Alyssa Milano, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kim Kardashian-West and Kanye West, James Woods, Orlando Bloom, Melissa Etheridge, Rainn Wilson, Cher and Pink.

Given the amount of money wealthy people put into their homes, what features could help a home avoid wildfires? A few options:

  1. An exterior sprinkler/hose system to help keep the home wet and not burst into flames.
  2. A protective shell that could arise around the exterior of the home.
  3. Construction out of certain materials that would be more fire-resistant.
  4. Building homes within communities that have permanent fire breaks around them or other devices to help slow fires before they arrive at individual homes.

None of these options would be cheap but there could be an opportunity here. And if these options could be had at a reasonable price, perhaps they could make their way to the general market.

(Side note: see an earlier related post about creating a McMansion that could withstand other natural disasters.)

The 21 remaining post-Chicago Fire buildings in The Loop

Gabriel Michael has a list of all the buildings in Chicago’s Loop that were built after the 1871 Chicago Fire:

Within Chicago’s Loop neighborhood, among the urban canyons of soaring glass & steel office buildings, there is a unique and rare collection of architecture: the commercial buildings erected in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. These are commonly referred to as the “Post-Fire” era buildings, built from 1872 up until the advent of modern building materials and advanced construction techniques. These unprecedented approaches to commercial architecture facilitated the birth of the multi-story “skyscraper” in the early-mid 1880s, notably William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building erected in 1883.

Post-Fire buildings’ architectural style is typically Italianate in varying degrees, and virtually identical to those destroyed in the fire. This is significant as it aesthetically forms a portal to the look of the “Pre-Fire” downtown Chicago building stock before it was completely obliterated. Functionally, the majority of the buildings served as wholesale commercial lofts, with each floor housing a different manufacturer of products appropriate for the era: leather goods, textiles, household amenities like pianos, steam heaters and boilers, and iron & woodworking machinery…

According to City of Chicago’s Landmarks Commission surveys, 75 of these buildings still remained in 1975. Fourteen years later, a new survey was done (prompted by the highly controversial “un-landmarking” and demolition of the McCarthy Building for Block 37 development) and showed less than 25 remaining: a staggering number of 50 had been demolished in just a decade and a half, during the “dark ages” of decay in Chicago’s downtown area. These occurred even with growing historic preservation awareness and municipal measures and ordinances in place to “protect” Chicago’s vulnerable historic architecture. Twenty-five years later in 2015, I have been able to identify 21 surviving buildings, displayed in the map below.

Of these 21, only 10 are recognized and protected as Chicago Landmarks. Some of the other 11 are “orange-rated” (or recognized as “historically significant” in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey [CHRS]), and a handful are not even “buildings” proper, but preserved façades with the original building demolished in recent redevelopment on the site. The rest hold no historic recognition, or even inclusion in the CHRS for unknown reasons.

The piece ends with a call for preserving more of these buildings. It would be interesting to have a broader discussion in Chicago regarding this: how many leaders and residents would support such preservation? Is Chicago so committed to economic and residential growth in the Loop that some of these buildings could be “sacrificed”? On the other hand, the preservationists could make a public case for why going beyond these 10 protected buildings is necessary. And would it be better to make a case one by one for the remaining buildings or to argue for all of them at once? Of course, the process of preserving buildings doesn’t just rest on the merits of individual structures but involves a social and political process.

Texas McMansion burned down because it was teetering on a cliff

Have a McMansion that is going over a cliff? Burn it down:

Charred debris from a luxury cliff-side home fell 75 feet into a lake below on Friday after fire crews set the $700,000 retreat ablaze rather than wait for it to crumble into the water as the land faltered around it.

It took less than an hour for the fire to level the home above Lake Whitney, about 60 miles south of Fort Worth. Flames consumed exterior walls after crews spread bales of hay and fuel to ignite flames throughout the expansive home.

The ground around the home cracked and became unstable in recent months. Then a few days ago, part of the land gave way beneath the 4,000-square-foot home, leaving pieces of the house dangling off the side of a cliff. Authorities condemned the home and the owners, Robert and Denise Webb, consented to Friday’s burn.

Authorities said destroying the house was better than waiting for it to topple into Lake Whitney. The cost of removing mounds of debris from the lake could prove prohibitive.

Apparently, the event was live-streamed by a local ABC affiliate and the pictures from the scene show the odd situation:

 

 

 

 

TexasMcMansionBurns

This does seem like an interesting way to remove a McMansion, given the clean-up of the lake that would be necessary.

How much more expensive is it to completely repair a McMansion versus buying one new?

I saw this story about a Bellevue, Washington McMansion that suffered a costly fire:

A new Enatai area ‘McMansion’ that was not yet occupied suffered more than $750,000 worth of damage during a fire early Monday morning.  The cause of the blaze is not immediately known but being investigated by authorities.  The house was not occupied yet, and no one was injured – although a Bellevue firefighter endured a big scare.

Once a home has suffered this kind of damage, is it simply cheaper to buy a new one rather than completely repair the existing home? Homes are usually built with economies of scale as builders work on multiple homes in an area and have materials and workers on hand. I’ve had this thought about cars as well: if you had to replace all of the individual parts, your costs would likely rise past the full value of the vehicle. Since the home was unoccupied (it does not note whether it was owned yet), I suspect it may just be torn down and a new home rebuilt on the spot.

Still lighting fires on railroad tracks to keep the switches working

Here is a brief look at using fire on the Long Island Railroad to keep the switches operational in the cold temperatures:

When the cold hits, isn’t the trains that have trouble. It’s the switches that direct the cars between tracks that freeze, and when a switch fails, it can compromise an entire line. To keep the switches functioning, the Long Island Railroad uses the centuries-old method of burning kerosene or natural gas to keep everything running.

The Long Island Railroad, the busiest commuter rail line in the United States, has dozens of switch heaters throughout its 700-mile system. Most use electric heating elements, other older ones burn natural gas, and the even older “switch pots” burn kerosene. Trackmen work through the nastiest of storms, lighting the heaters and dousing switches with Hexane, which is then ignited to melt the ice.

Yes, there are more civilized methods, like hot air blowers that clear debris, but in an era of self-driving cars and other modern marvels, simply using  fire to melt ice has a quaint retro feel to it.

While the picture is cool, I don’t know if “quaint retro” is the way to describe this. It is the 21st century, right? I’ve seen several stories about the use of fire this winter – including in the Chicago area with the maligned Metra tracks – but no one has mentioned how this is done in other countries. What about Siberia? Are there any technologies that could solve this issue?

Smokey the Bear is needed in urban areas like Chicago

Smokey the Bear is present on billboards in Chicago – and he is needed. According to the Chicago Tribune several days ago:

Helene Cleveland, fire prevention program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said wildfires are more common in the Chicago area than people think…

Tom Wilson, forest protection program manager for Illinois, said a study by the Chicago Wilderness organization noted more than 1,500 wildfires from January 2005 to March 2011 in the six-county Chicago area.

There are plenty of houses adjacent to forests and grassland areas that have potential to catch fire, Wilson said.

Such a message might seem out of place in Chicago but there are plenty of urban areas that are more visibly affected by wildfires more frequently: Los Angeles and other cities in the American Southwest or the fires currently outside of Sydney, Australia. Chicago might not see fires like this but there is still plenty of open land near the metropolitan area or within it as part of forest preserves and other entities.

These Smokey the Bear billboards are also a reminder of the relationship between cities and nature. The average Chicago street  might appear to have little nature beyond a few trees and a few small animals. Yet, cities can’t quite get away completely from nature, whether it is dealing with wildfires, water and flooding issues, responding to natural disasters, or the limited exposure children have to the natural world in books.