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.