Ask the Expert: Playing Defense on Wildfires

Considering Building Materials and Best Practices to Mitigate Wildfire Damage

July 16, 2019 Photo

The Expert:

Lisa Unger, Director, Casualty Claims, Hallmark Financial Services, Inc.


Q: With the recent devastating Camp and Woolsey wildfires in mind, are there any special considerations being given when it comes to building and living in fire-prone areas?

A: As we move ahead and progress with new technological advancements, knowing that the wildfire threat exists,
 the questions that must be asked are as follows: What can be done to prevent such destruction from occurring and reoccurring? What products are available to render structures fireproof? Why aren’t these products being used consistently today? And what new building codes are in place to lessen the scope and extent of fire-related damages?

What has been learned over the last two decades of wildfires, ranging from Santa Barbara to San Diego, is that hundreds of thousands of homes are at a higher risk of fire. Why? Because these homes are part of what has been termed “the wildland/urban interface.” According to a 
Los Angeles Times article from November 2017, “For two decades, state fire officials have been working to identify those vulnerable neighborhoods and tighten their defenses with fire-conscious building codes for new houses.”

Yet, these fire zones are not always predictable and they are not always accurate. When you have windy conditions, similar to the Santa Ana winds that occurred during the recent Southern California Woolsey fire (the fire destroyed almost 96,943 acres and 1,643 structures), predictive modeling efforts fall short as the path of wind-blown embers is virtually impossible to map.

Since this type of modeling is not realistically applicable, there are several important factors to keep in mind when it comes to wildfire risk. The nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), with support from the USDA Forest Service and state foresters, created the Firewise Communities Program to provide developers/builders with a few steps that builders can take to make homes and communities safer for home buyers:

Landscape—Limiting the amount of fuel should be
 a primary goal. This means reducing and limiting the amount of flammable vegetation and materials surrounding the home and increasing the moisture content of remaining vegetation. Become familiar with the “home ignition zone,” which includes the home itself and everything around it up to 100–200 feet.

Building Materials—Since embers can travel a mile or two before landing, constructing houses using fire-resistant building products should be considered. These materials are available, and unfortunately under-utilized. Since a lot of fires start with embers on a roof or underneath eaves, here are a few measures to be taken to help resist ignition of homes.

  1. Use of non-flammable and ignition-resistant construction elements for home exteriors, including roofs, siding, decking, and windows. Materials that resist ignition could include ignition-resistant treated wood, and cement and cement fiber materials in lieu of wood materials for roofs, decks, and siding.
  2. Consider openings in the home—vents and doggie doors, for example—as potential ember entry points and protect accordingly. Some high-fire-hazard areas do not allow any vents. The use of mechanical ventilation is required in these areas.
  3. Consider roof/gutter/vent design carefully. Complex roofs pose more hazards: Edges are vulnerable, including skylight edges; gutters can collect debris; and gable end vents are most vulnerable to ember entry from wind. The best solutions include simple roofs, no gutters (if practical), and ventless (if practical) or under-eave vents.

Maintenance—Landscaping should be maintained in order to be effective in the long run. Keep gutters clear of leaves and needles, sweep debris off flat surfaces, and keep fuel sources away from the house. Build a simple storage area away from the house for firewood so it will not become a major wildfire fuel source.

According to expert Pete Fowler of Fowler Construction, implementation and enforcement of fire hazard zoning and mitigation laws can reduce loss of life and property. Current codes are undergoing updates and revisions to include design, construction, and engineering practices.

The current law for “Defensible Space” is 100 feet around the perimeter of a home or structure. In the first 30 feet, all flammable vegetation has to be removed. For the next 70 feet, flammable vegetation has to be reduced by either creating space between plants, or leaving trees in place and removing all vegetation below the trees.

We can neither predict nor prevent wildfires, but we may be able to mitigate damage by building homes and communities with fire-resistant materials. The options available can be beautiful, affordable, environmental
ly friendly, and, most importantly, life-saving. Smart planning and a bit of maintenance, coupled with communities taking responsibility for their own surroundings, may create a far better environment for withstanding the next wildfire.

About The Authors
Phil Gusman

Phil Gusman is CLM's director of content.

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