As Wildfire Threat Rises, At-Risk Communities Eye New Defenses

As wildfires in the U.S. become more frequent and more destructive, at-risk cities are exploring ways to keep homes and neighborhoods safe.

Source: WSJ | Published on June 10, 2021

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Experts say new building materials, architectural detailing, landscaping choices and even road design will enhance fire safety in communities in the West and other parts of the country.

A traffic noise barrier along a thoroughfare in Santa Rosa, Calif., gives one glimpse of residential America’s fire-resistant future. The 8-foot-high wall stretches 1,550 feet along the Coffey Park subdivision, where embers from the 2017 Tubbs Fire jumped Highway 101 and destroyed 1,200 homes. The old wooden barrier went up in smoke too, replaced in 2019 by a more fire-resistant one consisting of polystyrene encased in stucco-covered concrete.

Besides helping block traffic noise, the new wall will serve as a fire break that protects nearby homes from future infernos, says David Shew, former staff chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“The fewer ignitions that occur translates into even more chances for structures to survive,” says Mr. Shew, who is now a fire-safety consultant in Napa, Calif. “Continuing to do things the same way we always have simply won’t work.”

California has taken the lead in pioneering new techniques and materials to protect homes from wildfires. In recent years the state has been ravaged by blazes that experts blame on a warming climate, drought, poor forest management and too many houses built too close to dry wild lands.

Wildfires scorched 10.1 million acres in the U.S. last year, more than in any other year on record except 2015, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. California accounted for a record 4.3 million acres of that toll, according to state fire officials.

Some emergent fire-mitigation strategies are decidedly high-tech. Mr. Shew points to firefighting aerial drones, for example, which could detect conflagrations and quickly douse them with water. And a fire department in British Columbia, Canada, is experimenting with the rapid deployment of portable sprinklers in neighborhoods threatened by fire.

More prosaic safeguards include stringent building codes—California’s are the nation’s strictest for fire safety—and the burying of power lines, which have been responsible for many infernos. State investigators determined that PG&E Corp. transmission equipment ignited the 2017 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, Calif.

These and other fire-protection measures are likely to spread as climate change dessicates forests and creates tinderbox conditions in the backyards of countless communities built next to wildland areas, fire-safety experts say.

For protecting individual homes, a two-pronged defense is gaining ground: create a “defensible” space around the structure, and build with fire-resistant materials.

The Tampa, Fla.-based Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety recently demonstrated the value of these strategies with a test in which two similar homes were exposed to a shower of embers—a leading cause of structural blazes associated with wildfires. The embers ignited wood mulch in a garden adjacent to one of the homes, allowing flames to spread to the home’s walls; the other home, which was bordered with fire-resistant landscaping of gravel and rock, didn’t catch fire.

Any combustible landscaping or other material should be kept at least 6 feet away from houses, says the institute’s chief executive, Roy Wright. “Fire can lead to the house like a wick,” he says.

Fire safety experts say homeowners can further reduce the risk posed by embers by installing metallic mesh guards over roof eaves, attic vents and other vulnerable areas where embers can land.

“Solutions like these will have to find their way into architectural schools to train architects in how to better design buildings in ways that will reduce ember intrusion,” Mr. Shew says.

Homes are gaining additional protection via the use of fire-resistant roofs, siding and windows, as mandated by California building codes. The only statewide fire rules in the nation, the codes are scheduled to be updated on July 1.

One hindrance to broader use of fire-resistant materials is expense; the use of concrete and steel traditionally has raised the cost of home construction up to 20%. But that gap has narrowed in recent years. Re-Structure Group LLC, the New York-based firm that built the noise barrier in Santa Rosa, markets lightweight, insulated concrete building panels that—amid the recent surge in lumber prices—are roughly the same price as wood, says CEO Ken Calligar. He says the company has a pipeline of $100 million in business for the panels, with about two-thirds going to homes and other properties in fire-prone areas of California.

For broader community protection, Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates recently helped develop a long-term recovery plan for Paradise, where the Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018, killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes in what ranks as the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire. Among other things, the plan calls for burying the PG&E lines that triggered the fire and revising streets to reduce the number of dead-ends, which made escaping the wildfire impossible for some people.

Experts say another potential safeguard recognized in the aftermath of the Camp Fire is designating open safety zones where townspeople can seek refuge. In Paradise, first-responders desperate to keep fleeing residents from getting trapped in their cars requisitioned a supermarket parking lot, where dozens of evacuees rode out the firestorm, says Barry Long, president of Urban Design.

Some cities have already started experimenting with evacuation zones. In the San Diego suburb of Escondido, the Eureka Springs subdivision—which was built in 2006 after a firestorm devastated the area in 2003—features a pair of grassy parks with few trees where residents can flee. Homes there are also equipped with ember guards, as mandated by 2004 San Diego County building codes that were enacted statewide in 2008.

“This whole thing could go up, but the fire authorities say we’re better than most,” says Escondido resident Chris Macisaac of his five-bedroom home. The home sits below a hillside covered with tinder-dry chaparral but is across the street from a buffer zone of less-flammable, irrigated landscaping. Such fuel breaks helped spare Montecito, Calif., from the 2017 Thomas Fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes along the Southern California coast.

In Orange County, Calif., developer Rancho Mission Viejo has created a buffer 110 feet to 170 feet wide and 5 miles long around one complex of 2,700 homes. The area, which includes a moat-like barrier of artificial wetlands to slow any fires, is irrigated and filled with less flammable plants, such as succulents.

Even with all these safeguards, experts say the wildfire threat won’t be eliminated because the blazes are growing bigger and hotter. But as Mr. Wright says, “there are absolutely ways to make the likelihood of wildfire destroying your home substantially less.”