Better homes, defensible space key to wildfire protection

Better homes, defensible space key to wildfire protection

26 November 2007

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USA — In Raymond Chandler’s classic short story “Red Wind,” he described our regular visits from the winds that sweep down from our high deserts and course through our valleys to the coast as “hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.

“Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.

“Anything can happen”.

Even in prehistoric times, our native forbears called the Santa Ana Winds “the Devil’s Breath,” and because of them, life in Southern California can be as dangerous as is it is scenic. The recent wildfires and frequent appearances by our Santa Ana winds remind us constantly that preparation and constant vigilance is the key to surviving disaster and that recent advancements have made new home communities safer and more fire-resistant than ever.

Specifically, following the Oakland Hills Fires in 1991, homebuilding professionals through the California Building Industry Association (CBIA) and Building Industry of Southern California (BIA/SC) coordinated with policymakers, public safety and local building officials in a concerted effort to ensure that state-of-the-art new homes and new home communities will always be as fire-resistant as humanly and scientifically possible. The combined expertise of private homebuilding professionals, product manufacturers and public safety officials has spawned innovation that has vastly improved the survivability of new homes.

Thanks to these public/private partnerships, gone are the wood shake roofs of the past. Now all new homes are required to have a more fire-resistant “skin.” In high fire severity zones, all new homes are required to have a Class A (most fire-resistant) roof covering. In addition, new roof-venting requirements make it much harder for burning embers to enter concealed roof and ceiling areas – forming a more fire-resistant shell around the house.

As safer, more fire-resistant building materials come on the market, building codes already in place will be buttressed by new building codes going into effect in January, which will establish ignition-resistant construction standards affecting vents, gutters, eaves, walls, decks, windows and doors. For example, windows, which can be one of the best defenses against wildfire, will be dual-paned, with at least one tempered-glass pane to protect homeowners.

To make new homes as fire-resistant as possible, homebuilding professionals and policymakers are also working to regulate decking, surfaces, stair treads, risers and landings of decks, porches and balconies where any portion of their surface is within 10 feet of the home. This helps ensure that nearby structures are less likely to ignite the home.

However, fire safety doesn’t end when occupancy permits are issued – residents must do their part to protect our communities from fire.

This is why state law now also requires that homeowners create Defensible Space Perimeters around their homes. Specifically, the law requires that there be a perimeter of 100 feet or up to the property line. This reduces the possible contact between fire and a home and – most importantly – gives firefighters space in which to defend the property.

New “production style” construction inherently offers excellent defensible space since the land surface was modified to make way for the roads, parks and open-space elements such as greenbelts.

This is why it is so important that state and local officials address the amount of combustible fuels in wildlands surrounding homes. High fuel loads create a virtual tinderbox fueling faster-moving and hotter fires while dramatically reducing the effectiveness of fire-resistant building materials and defensible space. Recent examples in San Diego County’s community of Palomar Mountain demonstrated that proper fuel load management can greatly protect communities.

More importantly, this message of defensible space and reduced fuel loads was corroborated dramatically in a number of other communities throughout Southern California, and it demonstrates that recent efforts to enhance fire protection are working.

Unfortunately, in California, dealing with wildfire is a way of life and mitigating Mother Nature’s effects is a continual pursuit.

As with the family car, homebuilders are continually striving to find new ways to improve safety, making the next generation of communities safer yet.

Frank Williams is chief executive officer of the BIA Baldy View Chapter, which represents homebuilders and associates in the housing industry in all of San Bernardino County and the easternmost portion of Los Angeles County.

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