A call the other day led to a discussion about neighbors. This wasn't in the biblical sense in either of its forms (fellow tribesman or mugged fellow traveler). This was about limits. What, I was asked, are the boundaries of a neighborhood where risks can be made unequal?

A related issue, elicited a recent Times editorial on the limits of subsidizing fire protection in neighborhoods adjacent to the chaparral of hillsides and arroyos. The Times thought that the risks can be shared. A statewide surcharge on all insurance premiums of about five percent made sense to the editorial writer. The surcharge would provide a revenue stream for state agencies to fight the wildfires that come with every autumn.

Story continues below

But the total cost of risks must not be shifted to those who don't share them, the Times thought. Homes already in flammable landscapes should have higher insurance rates or a new fire protection fee. And the state should require cities and counties to draw a firm boundary in areas where fire is perennial and permit no new development beyond that point to reduce future risk.

"Hazard zoning" was first proposed in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, in light of the region's history of flooding and earthquake. The county would have remained mostly agricultural had the risks of 1920 shaped development. Farms would cover most of the floodable flatland. Orange groves would still step up the hillsides. Los Angeles would be a kind of enlarged Santa Paula and very beautiful. And have no room for you or me.

Will you be my neighbor? The burdens are more than Mr. Rogers implied they might be.

Not a single house in my neighborhood has ever had a fire. Almost 60 years without even a scorched frying pan. But in your neighborhood - just for comparison - houses have burned to the ground in wildfires two or three times since the houses were built in the 1960s. If I have no burden of risk shared with you, then can you be my neighbor?

I'm almost grateful for earthquakes, which level all distinctions - hillside estates and the stucco-over-wood-studs tract houses of the flats equally. Threatened and neighbors at last.

The image of "Our Neighbor, Elva" on this page was made by Flickr user Daniel Greene. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading