New homes in O.C. withstand wildfire better than older ones

New homes in O.C. withstand wildfire betterthan older ones

23  December 2007

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Recent blazes point to the benefits of fire-resistant buildingmethods. It’s the older homes that have fire officials worried.

Hundreds of thousands of Orange County residents are living in wildfire’straditional stalking grounds. As many as 90,000 more will join them in the nexttwo decades as 30,000 homes are built in fire’s longtime habitat.

But if there’s one lesson to be derived from the recent Santiago fire thatconsumed 28,000 acres of Orange County backcountry in the fall, it’s that newhousing developments can withstand firestorms much better than older ones.

Fewer fire trucks were needed to keep flames from devouring homes in FoothillRanch and Portola Hills, which escaped unscathed because of tile roofs andgreenbelt buffers around them.

Nearby, 15 homes were lost to fire in steep, wooded Modjeska Canyon, whereolder homes are more susceptible to fire.

Nobody knows what areas will burn next or when. But experts are sure thebeast will return again and again, feeding on chaparral and grasslands and, mostlikely, Orange County homes as well.

“In a century, it’s going to happen twice” in each area, saidRichard Minnich, a professor of earth sciences at UC Riverside who has studiedwildfires. He said chaparral burns about once every 30 years.

“People think, ‘Nice views, the birds and the bees,’ ” Minnichadded. But “chaparral is nothing less than a carpet of gasoline in theworst of conditions, and the worst of conditions happen every year.”

In the wake of firestorms that struck Southern California in October,attention has focused on whether cities and counties should restrict developmentin wild lands.

But if such development is to take place – and even the most ardent criticsare at a loss as to how to prevent it – it should be done the way it’s done inOrange County, where homes are clustered together, vegetation is controlled andhomes are built with noncombustible materials, say local fire officials anddevelopers. Critics of developments in wild lands agree.

“At least there seems to be some sanity (in Orange County) aboutcontrolling expansion into the wild-land interface,” Minnich said.

“The proof is in the pudding,” added Orange County Fire AuthorityChief Chip Prather, referring to Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills, whichwithstood two recent wildfires without losing a home.

“The fire prevention measures performed as expected,” Prather said.”What keeps me awake at night are those other areas.”

Existing housing

Prather ticked off a list of areas that concern him, areas where homes haveflammable roofs and little or no brush clearance: unincorporated areas in NorthTustin, he said, and parts of Laguna Beach, as well as sections of Lake Forest,Mission Viejo, Orange and Anaheim.

“The conflagration potential is terrible,” he said.

Residents in some areas have taken steps to reduce the risk, replacingwood-shake roofs with tile or steel. Some homeowner associations have clearedaway brush and planted green vegetation up against homes. Some communities haveformed so-called fire safe councils to improve communities and prepareevacuation plans.

But here and there, wood shingles are still found on homes, some of which areperched at the top of the slope instead of being set back where the risk ofcatching fire is less. And many older homes still have wood siding as well asopen eaves that can trap embers in a firestorm.

Statistics aren’t readily available on the number of existing homes in wildlands, but past Register articles indicated that Orange County added 46,000units to zones with high fire hazards between 1990 and 2001.

Before that, an estimated 14,000 homes were built in Anaheim Hills alone inthe 1960s and 1970s. In addition, developments such as Coto de Caza, RanchoSanta Margarita, Dove Canyon, Mabury Ranch and Portola Hills sprouted fromformer grasslands before 1991 – more than 23,000 housing units in all.

Those homes alone total more than 83,000 units. Assuming the countywideaverage of three residents per household, those homes account for nearly 250,000people living in or near high fire hazard zones.

Some of those communities are safer than others, said OCFA Assistant ChiefLaura Blaul, who oversees the authority’s fire prevention efforts. Homes builtin the 1980s and since have “fuel modification” zones around them andwere built with noncombustible materials.

Still, Blaul estimated there are at least 9,800 homes without thosesafeguards in the unincorporated areas and the 22 cities that the OCFA protects.That’s equal to about 30,000 residents, not to mention horses and pets.

Minnich, the UC Riverside professor, said older homes in places like SantiagoCanyon and neighboring canyons are “like matchboxes waiting to gooff.”

“We can’t ignore fire,” added Tom Scott, a University of Californianatural resource specialist based in Riverside. “There’s a tacitunderstanding that the firefighters will always be there. But there are areaswhere defending housing is difficult under any circumstance.”

Eighty percent of homes burn due to flying embers, Scott said, making woodendecks little more than kindling and open eaves traps for glowing cinders.

The two biggest things people can do to make existing homes safer are reroofwith noncombustible materials and make sure that vents are screened to keepembers from getting into their attics, Blaul said.

Homeowners also should box up their eaves to keep embers out during wildfiresand clear brush away from the house, making sure to sweep leaves and pineneedles from the roof and rain gutters.

But such measures come with a price tag. Prather said perhaps insurancecompanies can be induced to provide incentives to homeowners, paying forimprovements up front rather than after an emergency occurs. Perhaps localgovernments can waive fees for permits as an inducement, he said.

“You’ve got issues. It’s a private residence,” he said. “I’dlike to explore maybe some incentives (that) can be provided.”

New housing: a bird’s-eye view

From 300 to 700 feet above the ground, the proposed 2,500-home Mountain Parksite looked like a dull, empty landscape when viewed two weeks ago from theOCFA’s Vietnam War-era helicopter, which has been converted into a water bomber.

Dry brush dots the brown hills on either side of the 241 toll road.

It looks peaceful now, but this spot was the scene of the Green River firethat devoured more than 53,000 acres in 1948. Nineteen years later, the PaseoGrande fire consumed 51,000 acres in virtually the same area.

Just south of the Mountain Park site, Battalion Chief Brian Stephens, whooversees the fire authority’s helicopter unit, keys his microphone and points tothe still-blackened, funnel-shaped hills where a burning, abandoned car ignitedthe 2,000-acre Windy Ridge fire in March.

A little farther south, the Irvine Co.‘s proposed Village of EastOrange – a 3,900-home project surrounding Irvine Lake – is still blackenedfrom the Sierra Peak fire of 2006.

The Rancho Mission Viejo site, where 14,000 homes are planned on both sidesof the Ortega Highway, was the scene of two of Orange County’s biggest fires inthe past century, including the Steward fire of 1958, which consumed almost70,000 acres.

Still, developers, fire officials and even critics think Orange County’sbuilding standards and building style will ensure that these and other fire-zoneprojects will be safe.

The county enacted building standards in the late 1970s for backcountry homesin fire-prone areas, requiring 170-foot-wide vegetation buffers consisting of 20feet of open space fringed by an irrigated section and – in areas closest toopen space – thinned vegetation.

In 1996, after the Laguna fire, the county also toughened building standards,requiring that homes be constructed with noncombustible materials, dual-panewindows, boxed-in eaves and screened vents.

Developers must ensure that roads will be wide enough for fire trucks andthat fire hydrants will have sufficient water capacity. In some cases, buildershave been required to install indoor sprinklers in homes.

The helicopter lumbers over a fire-blackened gully separating homes inFoothill Ranch. It’s clear that flames from the recent Santiago fire crept up tothe backyards lining the gully, only to die when it hit a green ribbon ofirrigated vegetation surrounding the development.

“Noncombustible fences. Noncombustible doors. One hundred-seventy feetof landscaping,” Stephens said, pointing to the homes. “That buys us alot.”

The Irvine Co. and Rancho Mission Viejo, which account for 93 percent of thehomes planned for Orange County’s fire zones, are including new fire stationsand wild-land firefighting equipment in their projects.

All 14,000 homes in Rancho Mission Viejo’s plan will have indoor sprinklersand will be built to new statewide standards that take effect next year. Therewill be vegetation buffers around each development within the project and deedrestrictions limiting landscaping in the development to fire-resistant plantsand trees.

But if such standards are to be effective, property owners and theirassociations must maintain the vegetation buffers well into the future, saidAssistant Chief Blaul. Firefighters have complained in the past that someassociations skimp on upkeep or change the plants.

Right now, enforcement isn’t strong enough, Blaul said. Los Angeles andVentura counties have mandatory measures to enforce vegetation rules.

“Orange County doesn’t have it,” she said.

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