Should homes be banned in fire-prone areas?

Jurisdictions need to develop standards for structures, the home ignition zone, and community infrastructure

before after camp fire paradise california homes burned
A neighborhood on Debbie Lane in Paradise, California, before and after the Camp Fire that started November 8, 2018. The homes were 14 to 18 feet apart.

In the weeks after 86 people were killed and over 14,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in the Camp Fire at Paradise, California three influential individuals and organizations urged the consideration of banning or restricting development in areas that are at high risk from wildfires.

First there was the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board on November 24 writing that “To rebuild Paradise as it was, would be land-use malpractice.” The Board continued, “The question facing state and local authorities is whether Paradise — and other towns that have burned — can be rebuilt to withstand the next, inevitable wildfire. If not, how does California relocate communities and restrict new construction while respecting property rights and not worsening the state’s affordable housing crisis? At a minimum, cities should remap fire-prone areas and focus reconstruction in areas with lower risk. “

Then on December 10 the group 1000 Friends of Oregon released “A New Vision for Wildfire Planning” that recommended avoiding development in high risk areas.

Chief Ken Pimlott
Chief Ken Pimlott, March 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Five days before he retired on December 15 Ken Pimlott, Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying officials should consider banning home construction in areas vulnerable to wildfires.

Cities, counties, and planning boards (where they exist) are often under pressure to approve new housing developments. They want to expand their tax base. Developers try to fit as many homes into a new subdivision as possible to maximize their investment. This too often results in homes that are 20-feet apart. If one is ignited by a burning ember that may have traveled a quarter of a mile from a fire (or a burning home) the radiant heat alone can ignite the homes on both sides. Then you can have a self-powered conflagration spreading house to house through a city. As long as the structures are that close together, the homeowners have not reduced the fuel in the Home Ignition Zone within 100 feet of the structure, and the home itself is not built to FireWise standards, a massive disaster can be the result.

firewise wildfire risk home tree spacing
Firewise vegetation clearance recommendations. NFPA.

The NFPA and the FireWise program recommend reducing flammable material within 100 feet of structures, and spacing trees at least 18 feet apart that are within 30 feet of the home. At the 60 to 100-foot distance tree canopies should be at least 6 feet apart. Another house that is 15 to 50 feet away is also fuel and if it ignites will be a serious threat.

If a homeowner wants, or is required, to reduce the flammable material within 100 feet of their residence, what are they expected to do if there is another home 20 feet away that is really a large assembly of flammable material?

Some of the homes in Paradise, California that burned were less than 20 feet apart. According to measurements using Google Earth, the structures in the photo at the top of this article were 14 to 18 feet from each other.

Photo: Anchor Point Group, Boulder, CO

The National Institute of Standards and Technology released a report on the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado in June, 2012. They concluded that current concepts of defensible space did not account for hazards of burning primary structures, hazards presented by embers, and the hazards outside of the home ignition zone. In addition, NIST recommended:

High-density structure-to-structure spacing in a community should be identified and considered in [Wildland Urban Interface] fire response plans. In the Waldo Canyon fire, the majority of homes destroyed were ignited by fire and embers coming from other nearby residences already on fire. Based on this observation, the researchers concluded that structure spatial arrangements in a community must be a major consideration when planning for WUI fires.

After studying the Carr Fire that destroyed 1,079 residences at Redding, California earlier this year, retired CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Royal Burnett reached similar conclusions.

It was easy to figure out why the houses on the rim burned — they were looking right down the barrel of a blowtorch. Even though they had fire resistant construction, many had loaded their patios with flammable lawn furniture, tiki bars and flammable ornamental plants. Palm trees became flaming pillars, shredded bark became the fuse, junipers became napalm bombs. Under current standards houses are build 6 to an acre; 10 feet to the property line and only 20 feet between houses. Once one house ignited, radiant heat could easily torch the next one.

We have to learn to live with fire

Reducing the chances that a fire in a populated area will turn into a disaster that burns thousands of homes involves at least three categories of factors, in addition to weather:

  • Envelope of the structure itself: characteristics of the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home.
  • Home Ignition Zone, as described above — topography and fuel within 100 feet.
  • Community infrastructure and planning: distance to nearby structures, evacuation capability, safety zones, road and driveway width, turnarounds at the end of roads, signage, and emergency water supply. Again, the FEMA document has great recommendations.

Someone asked me recently what needs to be done to keep from repeating disasters like we have seen within the last year at Paradise, Redding, and the Napa Valley. I told him that there is no one thing that needs to be done, such as raking or “forest management”, it requires a comprehensive holistic approach.

The items we have listed here only apply within communities. There is of course much that can be done surrounding the places where people live that would reduce the vegetation or fuel and decrease the intensity and ember generation potential of a fire as it approaches an urban area. Large scale fuel management including fuel breaks and prescribed fire programs are usually conducted by state and federal agencies.

The weakest link in the chain principle applies here. If one of these categories is sub-par, the individual structures and the entire community in a fire-prone environment is at risk. And if a homeowner does not do their part, it can endanger their neighbors.

The warming climate is demonstrating that wildfires are becoming increasingly perilous. It is unlikely that local governments or states are going to ban development in fire-prone environments, but it is their responsibility to protect their citizens by enacting sensible standards.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

14 thoughts on “Should homes be banned in fire-prone areas?”

  1. This is a thorny social issue. Local jurisdictions should always require minimum fire safe clearing and building material standards. However, to avoid the issue of telling owners they can’t build on their private property I have mulled over several potential options: 1) the owner could be required to make a deposit with the local fire agency to cover suppression costs, 2) the owner could be required to sign a waiver stating that they waive fire protection – ie in a severe wildfire the fire department would not be obligated to risk their equipment and lives to protect a high risk structure. None of these options work very well. More thinking needed.

  2. Thanks Bill, good article. We are seeing a county (Placer) go ahead with pretty large developments in High Risk Zones, with only one evacuation route for literally miles. Local governments can’t continue allowing maximum developments when the science is telling us it will no longer be safe or affordable for the community.

  3. i dont know about building bans or restrictions.but how about even more fire retardant or fire proof building materials ? homes being built with not just indoor fire suppression also roof mounted water/cooling systems,rather than wasting water with sprinklers ,use a water flow system,where water would flow in sheets down the roof,and into a larger gutter system and into a catch basin and then recycled,after all you would be paying for the water,even if its on a well you atleast pay for the power,this then brings up,shouldnt all new homes have a tank in the attic to have a water storage for emergencies if on a well? (they would have to change the laws concerning rain water collecting,which makes no sense,if you were to really fight back,them saying it comes from the sky to the ground therefore making it the water resources property ,yes i simplified that,then you could argue that you own the roof the rain water lands on therefore its your property.trying to collect it from the ground would again give them the argument its theirs.)

    another thought ive had,weve all seen the videos of people fleeing fires,be it paradise or elsewhere,how about offering fire shelters for private citizens? community wide seminars,or meetings and teach people how to use them,some will say it would be to hard to teach or something,but i know ive wanted to have one since i left the FD myself,never know when i might be stuck in a situation…and i took note on the Camp fire,,several videos were taken where folks were in failry large parking lots..instead of fleeing in your car,,move as many cars as possible out of the lot,then deploy shelters in the center of the lot,and hunker down.wouldnt be good for civvies to do it on grass knolls or what have ya..but in the center of an open parking lot,youd have some what more of a chance.

  4. I think we need to limit development in fire prone areas, and improve fire resistance of existing homes. I’m a forest landowner in Oregon who didn’t think much about wildfire until a feller buncher started a fire on a neighboring parcel a few years ago. Two engines, several tank trucks, a helicopter with a water source 3 minutes away, and a hotshot crew stopped the fire 200′ from our house (150′ to neighbor’s barn). The crew leader told me that they could lay hoses quickly because I kept clear a skid road on one side of the fire, and had another walking trail to the slope break where the fire was stopped.
    Species of trees around homes needs to be addressed as well as spacing. I’ve been cutting pine trees and leaving madrone since pine needles are so slow to rot and so quick to burn. I’ve also wondered if household or neighborhood fire shelters would be a good idea to reduce evacuation load on roads; perhaps they should be required for new construction in fire prone areas. People should have the option of sheltering in place. I’ve seen Australian mass produced fire shelters which hold four to eight people and look like a concrete septic tank with a metal door.
    Anyway, thank you Bill for another important post. I discovered your blog early last fire season and I’ve been reading since and am very impressed.

  5. We need less government intervention. This is not a zoning problem. This is an overextending community budget and resources problem that all government entities are so good at spending beyind their means. Citizens should be able to live and build what they want how they want where they want. All at their own peril. If they want to insure a firetrap or gazillion dollar estate that checks every box on the firewise checklist thats also up to them and their wallet and the insurance co. The flip side is fire cos need to restructure and make their community property owners aware that in preestablished locations in wildfire situations they will not get any assistance. Its unsafe and a complete waste to commit resources to locations and situations that are not tenable from a wildfire perspective. Its well past the time that people need to be held accountable for their bad decisions and stop relying on first responders to bail them out. And government definitley has no place in telling anyone what to do. Government at all levels cant manage itself these days.

    1. We need less corporate intervention. The developers build these wood frame subdivisions, sell them to clueless people and then bitch about big government while the suburbs burn.

  6. I live in the WUI in Colorado’s front range and I moved up here before anyone had invented the term “WUI”.

    I’ve watched the wildfire risk / WUI problem develop over the years up here and its obvious that the situation is analogous to the boiled frog experiment. It all happened so slowly no one recognized the problem until it was too late. In my county and in most of Colorado front range counties, land use, planning and zoning, and building codes still fail to recognize the problem. The frog isn’t completely boiled yet but indications are that it will be.

    Given some more time, Colorado will build several “Paradise California communities” on the front range. The Gallagher and TABOR amendments will ensure fire protection districts are underfunded. Expensive mitigation won’t get done and when the community finally burns, we will wonder why the frog allowed itself to get boiled.

  7. Great article covering a complex situation. Part of me would like to see it all up to the individual and their insurance company, but we know insurance folks tend to use a generic template and don’t typically understand the different burning characteristics of various types of vegetation or local fire conditions. We also know, as we’ve seen in California the last two years, that we are now in a different fire behavior era. So, how do we make government work for everyone’s safety?

    Here are a few thoughts:
    Know your local fire problem and keep yourself up to date.
    Get out and see how others have tackled the problem.
    Give recommendations to anyone that asks. You’ll probably make mistakes. Learn from it and move on.
    Actively support community mitigation efforts.
    Help craft local and regional codes/laws for public safety.
    Be the leaders that we are.

    We know that folks in the worst places are going to call and we are going to go if a life is endangered. It’s just how we’re wired.

  8. Great article. The resistance to changes in zoning and building codes will be fierce here in southern Oregon. Libertarians and the real estate industry will join forces to oppose limits on building flammable housing.

  9. IMNSHO WUI overlay zoning could (should?) be established in high-risk zones that mandate lower density, wildfire-resistant new/updated construction. Not sure how much zoning can (or should) do with fire-resistant landscaping; seems a bit heavy-handed to me to try to mandate such things as tree spacing. Maybe that could be addressed with more of a carrot-based approach, such as providing funds and services to help homeowners establish and maintain defensible space and land features. And then there’s still the issue of grandfathered structures/property. Not an easy problem.

  10. This is indeed a thorny issue with no easy answers. If you increase the lot size to move houses further apart to reduce risk of fire spread between houses, the decrease in housing density will cause a huge increase in the footprint of the WUI (i.e. sprawl will increase). You’ll also increase the road length requirements and all of the problems associated with them and you’d likely cause an actual decrease in forest management because many private property owners dislike or distrust typical management actions to reduce fires hazard.

    The logical answer would be to move everyone into densely constructed zones with a large defensible space constructed around the zone and require fire-resistant building materials or firewalls between adjacent buildings. That of course won’t happen because that’s not why people want to move into the WUI in the first place.

    Many of us still have the American dream of a house in the woods without close neighbors (the fantasy of frontier living for many) and there are simply too many of us for that to be reasonable or practicable to manage in fire-prone ecosystems. Particularly with the spectre of climate change-induced phenomenon. Wasn’t it Pogo who famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” or something along those lines.

  11. Dude what ya talking about? A fire prone area is called California! Especially with the legalization of recreational use of marujana! From 2006 to 13 there were some small fires but the first big 1 I’ve ever seen was the Rim Fire! Now instead of 1 in 7yrs, its 7 a yr & it’s more if we add Nor-Cal+ So- Cal together!!

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