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.

Some home insurance companies refusing to renew policies in wildfire-prone areas

Firewise defensible space structure

One of the most serious problems facing firefighters today is the movement of residents into the Wildland/Urban Interface, the WUI. As a wildfire spreads toward flammable structures that are near or in some cases surrounded by burnable vegetation it can be very difficult to protect them. Often as a fire grows in a WUI area containing dozens or hundreds of homes there are not enough firefighters to park a fire engine at every house.

Some structures are easier to protect than others. “Firewise” refers to homes that are designed and maintained to be fire resistant. A few burning embers (that can be transported in the wind for a mile) in most cases will not ignite a home built to withstand fire. It is the other homes, with flammable siding, roofs, and decks, and that have brush or trees providing an efficient path for the fire to spread up to the structure, that is a nightmare for the fire department. In some cases as a fire approaches, this second category of homes will be written off since it may not be possible to save them, even with a fire truck parked in the driveway. Without vegetation clearance of 30 to 100 feet, it can be unsafe for firefighters to remain at the site as an intense fire approaches.

Gunbarrel Fire
Firefighters at the Gunbarrel Fire west of Cody, WY apply foam and install sprinklers at Goff Creek Lodge, August 26, 2008. Photo by Michael Johnson.

A difficult to defend home is not only a problem for the owner, but it also affects the community. As it burns in a wildfire, it creates huge amounts of radiant and convective heat. Combined with the airborne burning embers put into the air as it burns, it can ignite other homes nearby. If multiple unprepared homes burn, the effects of the conflagration are multiplied making it difficult for even Firewise structures to survive. In addition, unprepared homes suck up more firefighting resources, which can make it difficult or impossible for there to be enough firefighters, crews, engines, and aircraft to suppress the wildland fire — they are often tied up because of some irresponsible residents.

In a perfect world all structures in a WUI would be Firewise. Inevitably, however, a sizeable percentage of homeowners will do nothing to make their structures defensible. There are two ways to encourage, or even force, them to take action before a fire strikes. Zoning laws and insurance companies. Laws can, for example, ban wood shingle roofs, and require vegetation clearances up to 100 feet, as well as other requirements. Many jurisdictions do this.

Insurance companies have an extremely powerful tool at their disposal that is rarely used. According to the NW News Network, at least two companies in Washington and Oregon are refusing to renew the policies for some home owners, or for structures in wildfire prone areas.

Below is an excerpt from NW News:

Some insurance companies are choosing not to renew policies in wildfire-prone areas of the inland Northwest. That’s sending home owners scrambling to find new coverage for their properties. Northwest-based insurers such as Pemco and Grange Insurance are getting choosier about how much risk they’ll take on. This according to property owners who’ve been dropped recently and posted about their frustrations online.

One customer from Chelan, Washington, complained Pemco refused to renew her homeowners insurance despite 17 years with no claims. The common thread among the non-renewals is location in wildfire country.

Oregon’s insurance regulators looked into this and said some insurers updated their wildfire risk rating models.

“There have been some non-renewals, rate increases, and moratoriums on new business, because updated risk models showed certain areas to be at especially high risk of wildfires,” wrote Jake Sunderland, a Department of Consumer and Business Services spokesman, in an email.

Refusing to write policies in a large area is not the best solution. Some companies will only insure structures after inspecting them to be sure they are Firewise and have defensible space.

Creating Defensible Space Around Utility Poles

Above: The power pole hazard mitigation crew’s sawyer flush cuts a palo verde stump.

By Tom Story

“As Arizona’s largest utility, there are fire risks we have to manage,” said Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service (APS). “The primary goal of fire mitigation is to prevent fire from ever happening. The second is to provide safe and reliable electricity to the communities APS serves.  Just as important is the ability to provide for firefighter safety around our system in the event of a fire”, Mr. Ward continued.  “With five thousand miles of transmission and twenty-eight thousand miles of distribution it is hard not to have our system affected by wildland fire.  When this happens, APS’s priority is providing a safe environment for crews to work in”.

defensible space power poles
In Cave Creek, AZ; Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service, sizes up a palo verde tree slated for removal as part of the APS Defensible Space Around Poles program.

Mr. Ward knows fire (he joined APS after his fire career at the Prescott Fire Department) and he has seen factors like drought, climate change and forest management set the stage for larger and more powerful wildland fires.  “It is becoming more evident that due to extended drought over the past decade forest and vegetation ecosystems have been stressed from the lack of regular moisture compounded by shorter drier winters and longer warmer summers,” Mr. Ward said.

APS sends out inspectors to identify hazardous vegetation in violation of its safety and reliability clearance standards as well as violations of the National Fire Code and the Urban Wildland Interface Code (which state that a utility with equipment attached to the pole must clear all vegetation 10 feet in all directions including 10 feet from the ground). The area around the pole is cleared by work crews to create defensible space.  “There are approximately 70 thousand poles within our system that we will have on a three year return cycle to maintain Defensible Space Around Poles (DSAP)” said Mr. Ward.

defensible space power poles
Other crew members cut up and feed the branches into a chipper.

The clearing is being done using manual methods (including chain saws, string trimmers and other hand tools) and where approved is followed by the application of herbicide in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Vegetation Management practices. APS has prioritized the treatment of subject poles by utilizing data derived from a risk assessment done across the state. Mr. Ward continued; “It is a part of our core values at APS Forestry to manage vegetation and the environment by balancing benefits to create healthy forests and safe reliable energy”.

Mr. Ward finished his remarks noting, “In 2016 we created 110 acres of defensible space around the state of Arizona. One pole at a time”.

defensible space power poles
Putting the finishing touches on the cleanup around one of the Arizona Public Service power poles in Cave Creek, AZ.