California sets new building codes in areas vulnerable to fire

California sets newbuilding codes in areas vulnerable to fire

28 June 2008

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USA — When Ed Kanner decided to build a new home inthe foothills just south of downtown Los Gatos, he chose an unusual roof. Steel,painted brown to blend in with the oaks nearby.

Originally the idea was environmental efficiency – steel reflects heat andwill keep the house cool. But it also has another benefit, fire safety. StartingTuesday with new statewide building standards, fire-safe materials are about tobecome a lot more common around California.

“If there’s a fire, stuff up here goes up fast,” said Kanner, a CPAwho also didn’t mind a Los Gatos rule that he also install fire sprinklers.”I think I’m not only saving my own life, but probably somebody else’s.”

As wildfires burn across California this summer, the new codes will includesome of the strictest standards in the nation for people constructing new homesin high-fire areas from the Oregon border to San Diego, the Sierra to the SantaCruz Mountains.

The rules require the highest-rated roofing materials: double-paned temperedwindows so the glass doesn’t shatter in heat; fire resistant materials fordecking and siding; and mesh screens over attic vents to repel flying embers, acommon way firestorms spread.

“We have been looking at how we can make houses more resistant to fire.Embers are the real culprit,” said Ernylee Chamlee, chief of wildland fireprevention engineering for the California Department of Forestry and FireProtection.

The new building rules are part of a two-prongedstate strategy following historic blazes in 2003 that killed 24 people andburned 3,600 homes in Southern California.

The strategy is simple. It is politically impractical to ban all constructionin fire-prone areas – just as it would be to ban all construction in earthquakehazard zones. So state authorities hope instead to reduce the chances of homesburning once fires start.

The other component requires rural homeowners to clear brush and trees 100feet around their homes, rather than 30 feet, the previous standard. AlthoughGov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed that “defensible space” law in 2005,state and local fire departments have written almost no tickets for violators.But that’s changing, too. Fines go up to $500.

“This year, we will be more aggressive. If necessary, we will takeenforcement actions to see that the work gets done,” said Cal Fire directorRuben Grijalva.

“Defensible space doesn’t mean clear-cutting everything down. It meansthinning. It means being lean, clean and green.”

Both the building and thinning rules affect roughly two-thirds of the land inSanta Clara County.

In particular, property in the foothills east of San Jose, Morgan Hill andGilroy is affected, along with forested land all along the Santa Cruz Mountainsfrom the Lexington Basin to Los Gatos, and up the Peninsula.

The building rules – specifically, section 7A of the State Building Code -were developed by a task force of government, industry and environmental groups,but they have sparked some controversy.

Homeowners in Plumas County grumbled about overly aggressive statebureaucracy. Some residents in Woodside have been concerned that towns mightexpand them to remodeling jobs, or insurance companies might raise rates.

At Lake Tahoe, property owners rushed to get applications in before Jan. 1,when the rules took effect there.

“Every year, they need to find things that will ‘improve structures,'” said Stephen Clark, a Saratoga architect. “Some of it is damn goodresearch. Some of it is to keep their jobs. But most of this is worth it. Ifpush comes to shove, this is worth it.”

Fire-resistant materials generally cost more than traditional ones. How muchthe new rules will add to the price of a new home is unclear.

On average, they should increase costs by $1,800 a home, according to CalFire and the California Building Standards Commission.

Clark said they might add perhaps 10 percent to the cost of a new home.

“People want to live in the mountains and in these high-risk areas. This is a small price to pay,” said Dave Walls, executive officer of the building standards commission. “With these new codes, you are buying time for fire fighters. It is another kind of insurance for your home. You might even be buying yourself time to escape.”

The new building codes will be enforced in city and county planning departments when people submit plans for new homes. The brush thinning rules are typically enforced by local and state fire crews, who drive around inspecting risky areas every spring. And exactly where do the rules apply?

Both affect people living in two primary areas. The first, which makes upabout one-third of California, is known as the “State Responsibility Area,”or SRA. These are the rural locations where Cal Fire has the primaryresponsibility for fighting wildfires.

New maps that Cal Fire released last year rank the hazards as yellow, orangeor red, based on computer mapping of slope, vegetation, rainfall and the abilityof embers to drift. The tougher building standards apply to all areas in the SRAzone, and took effect Jan. 1.

The other place the new rules apply is known as the “LocalResponsibility Area,” or LRA. These areas are within city limits, and localfirefighters are the first responders. They include places like the hillsadjacent to Los Gatos, Saratoga, Woodside, Oakland and other cities. Here, thenew rules take effect Tuesday, but only in the red, or highest hazard, areas.

Since the new building codes only affect new homes, they will take time tohave an effect. However, experts say, they will eventually make California safer,particularly when combined with the new thinning rules.

“Typically, people don’t think their house is going to catch on fire,”said Jenn Viane Riese, executive coordinator of the Santa Clara County FireSafeCouncil, a non-profit group.

“They think nothing happened last year so it won’t happen this year,until they wake up at 3 a.m. when their neighbors are honking horns and theflames are 100 feet away.”

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