New construction codes beef up building fire safety

New construction codes beef up building fire safety

9 July 2008

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USA — Even as wildfires flame across California, new state construction rules are taking effect that could help protect homes in future fires.

The regulations, which went into operation on July 1, require new homes and businesses in fire danger zones to be built with walls, windows and other materials that are more fire-resistant than anywhere in the nation.

“It’s fairly significant,” Cal Fire spokesman Glenn Barley said of the new regulation.

The new rules couple with the requirement that homeowners clear 100 feet of defensible space around their homes, said Barley, who is the forester for the San Bernardino unit of Cal Fire.

“When both of those things are done together, it makes a significant difference” in fire safety, Barley said.

But, he cautioned, “there’s no guarantee with any of these.”

Keeping embers out

The primary purpose of the new building standards is to keep out embers that research has shown can travel up to a mile and trigger fires long after a fire front has passed through a neighborhood.

“The goal is enclosing the structure so embers can’t get inside,” said Ernylee Chamlee, chief of wildland fire prevention engineering for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – also know as Cal Fire.

But builders will face some initial supply problems in meeting the new standards, Chamlee said.

Window manufacturers have yet to produce the required dual-pane windows with at least one pane of tempered glass, and fire labs have yet to develop tests for new vents to keep embers out of buildings.

“The industry is still trying to catch up,” Chamlee said.

The rules apply to new construction in areas where the state is responsible for fire protection. These zones recently have been remapped for more accuracy.

The new regulations also are in force in the existing highest risk fire zones protected by local cities and counties.

But the state is working with local officials to update the maps, which might lead to some adjustments in exactly where the new rules will apply when they are finished, probably by the end of the year.

Cities and counties also may make their own additions to state maps based on their knowledge of local conditions in, for example, a canyon or old neighborhood, said Dean Cromwell, a Cal Fire research manager.

“At a minimum, they must do the state standards,” Cromwell said of local governments.

Roofing concerns

There already are nearly eight million households in the popular but hazardous state and local fire protection zones, Chamlee said.

The new standards will apply only to new homes and commercial buildings, with the exception of roofs. Owners of existing buildings will have to meet the latest roofing standards in the hazard areas when they re-roof.

The additional cost of meeting the new standards has been estimated at $1,800 per house, though fire officials said it can vary widely depending on construction plans.

Group effort

The new rules are seen as the next significant extension of the state’s effort to protect wildland from fires that now require homeowners to create a “defensible space” of 100 feet around their homes.

“We think this can make a major difference” in fire safety, Chamlee said of the new regulations.

The new rules, which were developed jointly over several years by firefighters, building officials, industry representatives and other interested parties, will not only protect individual homes but also neighbors.

Noting that a house fire produces more embers than a wildland fire, Chamlee said that “when a whole house catches on fire, it becomes a fire hazard to the houses surrounding it.”

Cal Fire plans an all-out public education campaign to inform the public in hazardous areas about the new rules, she said.

“It’s getting people to recognize the vulnerability of their property,” Chamlee concluded. “We want a house to be able to survive without a firefighter at every house because with a conflagration, that will never happen.”

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