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New California laws build on research into wildfire-resistant construction

Pat Avila knows firsthand how important fire-resistant construction is to her living space.

In Sonoma County’s devastating Tubbs Fire of 2017, the longtime real estate agent’s residential complex with 46 homes in the Fountaingrove neighborhood burned down when embers penetrated the attic during the high winds.

“Before we had a tile roof, the house collapsed when fire went into the attic. I grabbed my computer, purse and makeup,” she recalled when her neighbor called and she evacuated at 1:10 a.m., as if it happened yesterday.

But like a Phoenix rising in the ashes, The Oaks at Fountaingrove development on Kilarney Circle in Santa Rosa is being rebuilt with many state-of-the-art, value-added features and retrofits designed to ward off future fire threats.

At the direction of the homeowners association, builder John Farrow mandated the homes being rebuilt after Tubbs include these features:

  • Metal roof and framing
  • Vents removed from the attic
  • Fire-resistant spray foam as insulation in the walls
  • Concrete slab in the bottom crawl space
  • Three-coated, stucco wall finish
  • Garage door opener battery backup
  • Automatic fire sprinkler system
  • Fire-tolerant landscaping
  • Tempered windows to avert massive heat
  • TimberTech decks meeting class A requirements — which refers to a National Fire Protection Association standard.

“I know how lucky we are,” Avila said. “They should be a great example of how homes should be built right now.”

About half the 46 homes have been completed, with residents like Avila having moved in to the complex. The places range in price from $700,000 to almost $1 million. Full completion is due by early December.

“If there was a fire, they’d have a better chance of surviving it,” Farrow told the Business Journal. The contractor worked with Stockham Construction and other subcontractors to erect a model for wildland fire defense building.

“We thought, ‘Let’s make this thing that if a fire comes through, we’ll make sure these buildings can be customized to survive it in 60, 20 or even three years from now,” Farrow said.

Line in the sand for the Golden State

With a fire year marred by reaching an unprecedented milestone at more than 4 million acres consumed, California stands at a crossroads in terms of living with and dying by fire.

The loud call for creating and remodeling structures with more fire resistant materials and methods has gained in decibel levels, from fire safety advocacy groups, contractors, government officials, academics and the state fire marshal. New laws that demand stricter regulations are due to be enforced at the start of 2021, with more to come.

“The building standards have to change because we’re not going to change where people build,” state Sen. Bill Dodd told the Business Journal. “There’s no way I’m going to tell people who lost everything that they can’t rebuild there.”

The firm stance by the Napa Democrat about whether to build in the wildland urban interface — WUI, pronounced WOO-ee — was quickly followed by a staunch commitment to regulating how California contractors may build.

With the return of fires year after year to Wine Country, the calling has become near and dear to the lawmaker. The state legislator’s Senate Bill 190 signed into law last October requires the state fire marshal’s office to work with the Housing and Community Development Department to come up with groundbreaking standards “that provide for comprehensive site and structure fire risk reduction,” it reads.

The guidelines call for beefed up fire resistance standards for exterior walls, windows, vents, decking, roofs and garage doors.

The law also commands the state fire marshal to create a training plan to educate local building officials, contractors and fire service personnel.

“It’s a synergy between getting information out to counties of the most effective ways to save a house from wildfire,” Dodd said.

No state penalties are attached for non-compliance for new construction on a state level, but local governments may choose to impose fines.

Some of the law is in play now — mostly with the creation of the training plan. The guidelines attached to the building codes are a work in progress since the state has established a working group to set these recommendations.

There’s no requirement that existing homes be retrofitted to meet the codes.

State fire marshal singles out certain areas of construction

There are certain spots especially vulnerable when fires rage, say experts.

“The roof is extremely important. Embers, if they find a weakness, can start a fire,” said Cal Fire’s Staff Chief Steven Hawks, who works in the state fire marshal’s office. Hawks listed slate, metal and tile as the best rating in class A.

Roofs are rated class A, B and C based on their fire resistance, with about three quarters of U.S. homes having roofs in the class A category, the best classification.

Forget wood shake roofs starting July 1, 2021. At one point, California Fire Code was once adapted to allow them to be treated. But by next year, they’ll be banned as adequate roofing.

With flying, burning embers becoming so pervasive in gusty wildfires over the last few years, Assembly Bill 38, written by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, and signed into law a year ago, also requires that mesh gaps in vents attached to homes must change from one-eighth of an inch to one-sixteenth. Embers make their way through the vents into attics — igniting structures from the inside out.

Non-combustible siding must also be used, whether the material is metal, stucco or fire-treated wood. Further, Hawks recommended that some property owners have found success in applying shutters to their vents on the housing walls.

In the event of wind-driven infernos, tempered glass has also shown as more resistant to the type of heat that comes with a raging fire. Dual-panes are suggested for durability for when windows are blown out and embers blow in, when these blazes approach.

“Most homes catch fire because of embers,” he said.

“The two best things people can do is ‘home hardening’ — which means using fire resistant materials — and defensible space,” he said.

As blazes get larger each year and more widespread, Hawks predicted a time may come when California may have to make the tough decision to ban where houses and businesses can be built — especially in the WUI.

For instance, the August Complex still burning in seven counties including Mendocino and Lake has surpassed 1 million acres.

More than 2 million California buildings — one in four residential structures — are located within or in wildfire movement areas of “high” or “very high” fire hazard severity zones.

“We’re continuing to work on the codes.” Hawks said.

Fire codes may also affect real estate sales for when property owners want to unload their assets.

AB 38 dictates that starting Jan. 1, 2021, a seller “of any real property located in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone to provide a prescribed disclosure notice to the buyer, if the home was constructed before Jan. 1, 2020, the bill’s language reads.

The issue is not reserved to the Golden State. According to a Headwaters Economics study commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, LOR Foundation and Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, one third of all U.S. homes are located in the wildland urban interface. The Bozeman, Montana-based report indicated that more than 35,000 structures have been lost to wildfire in the last decade.

Aside from the lightning-spawned fires Northern California experienced in mid-August, human-ignited wildfires account for 84% of all U.S. wildfires from 1992 to 2012, causing the blazes to occur in atypical places and times, the study added.

The cost beyond pain and suffering is monumental. The price tag on the nation’s wildfire fight is on the rise. In the last decade, federal fire suppression expenditures cost taxpayers an average of $3.7 billion per year. Most alarming, federal managers attribute 50% to 95% of those suppression costs aimed at protecting structures in the WUI.

Going the extra mile to stop fires from leveling structures does not have to cost an arm and leg and can be constructed for “roughly the same cost as a typical home,” according to the study. Some contractors such as Farrow Construction even estimate the cost would either amount to about 10% more to retrofit a fire-resistant building, if not less, in certain circumstances.

Indeed, the fire economics study said the cost of a typical roof was $21,810. A wildfire-resistant version would run $27,670. The average deck may be priced at $9,730, while one designed to hold back the threat may require about $2,000 more.

Still, fire-resistant exterior walls may end up costing a property owner less. The study provided a $36,190 price tag, in contrast to a $48,380 bill for traditional siding, sheathing, doors and windows.

“Wildfire-resistant materials can be the same, if not less, than traditional. Cost doesn’t have to be a prohibitor,” insurance institute wildfire researcher Daniel Gorham told the Business Journal. “In the long run, there’s a cost saving.”

Gorham, a former firefighter, pointed to the high odds associated with a home or business igniting. Chances are as high as 90% the structure will be set ablaze once embers land on or by it, IBHS reported.

To prove that, the independent nonprofit dedicated to research insurance fire safety risks for communities created a model simulation in March 2019 that mimics an active wildfire. Embers were cast at a duplex house in the organization’s South Carolina test chamber. The house built with traditional materials faced dire consequences compared to the one with fire resistant components.

“The name of the game is deterring the ignition,” Gorham said. “It’s all about the embers and making sure they have nothing combustible to land on.”

Fire behavior prompts new research center

In the same year blazes consumed more and more of the state, San Jose State University on Sept. 1 opened its Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center, which encompasses the mobile Fire Weather Research Laboratory.

Kate Wilkin, a 20-year forest ecologist and SJSU professor helping to run the center, emphasized how small changes to a property owner’s surroundings can make a difference in saving a structure.

“Maintenance is the unsung hero here. When I lived in high fire danger and had a red flag warning, I’ve moved my porch plants to the middle of the yard and taken the cushions off the chairs,” she said.

It’s not because these items are particularly flammable. It’s because the objects collect yard debris around them that can set a porch or deck ablaze.

SJSU’s fire lab director Craig Clements pointed out how research and education is just as critical to averting firestorms due to fuel loads and drought.

“It’s only going to get worse. People won’t stop living in these environments, unfortunately. We can’t change the weather, but we have to stop (this fire destruction) for future generations,” Clements said.

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