California to activate National Guard to help reduce wildfire risk

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has put together a list of 35 projects around the state where they intend to reduce the wildfire risk for residents. This follows multiple large fire disasters in 2017 and 2018 that killed over 100 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. In many areas those not directly affected by the flames were exposed to hazardous levels of smoke for days or weeks at a time.

The State will establish incident bases in proximity to vulnerable communities and coordinate fuels treatment operations from those facilities utilizing the Incident Command System. The Governor will activate the National Guard to help complete the work.

The projects, identified and planned at the local level, are intended to reduce the public safety risk for over 200 communities. Examples of work to be done include removal of hazardous dead trees, vegetation clearing, creation of fuel breaks and community defensible spaces, and establishment of ingress and egress corridors. CAL FIRE believes these projects can be implemented immediately if their recommendations are taken to enable the work.

Recognizing that entry level employees in California are not highly compensated, and often have challenges finding affordable housing in areas where they work, the state will provide additional government housing for seasonal state employees working on forest management and fuels reduction.

In addition to large-scale fuel reduction projects near communities, CAL FIRE understands that residents have to also do their part to reduce the flammable material in their home ignition zone within 100 feet of structures, and especially immediately adjacent — within 5 feet.

Details on the projects can be found online at http://calfire.ca.gov/fire_prevention/downloads/FuelReductionProjectList.pdf. CAL FIRE expects to keep the list updated.

Priority Landscapes wildfire protection
(Click to see a larger version)

The entire 28-page report about this new initiative can be found here.

Oregon county changes zoning to require new construction to be low density

Structures farther apart are less likely to ignite neighboring homes during a wildfire

Deschutes County in Oregon has approved new zoning that will require new construction on the west side of Bend to be low density and fire-resistant.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that the new regulation will result in 90 percent fewer homes in the area than the previous code permitted.

One contributing factor that led to more than 15,000 homes being destroyed in two fires in California in 2018, the Camp and Carr Fires, was the close spacing between the structures.

Paradise Camp fire 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.

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.

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 — 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.

More information about how to prevent wildfires from wiping out communities.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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.

Wildfire-resistant construction costs are similar to typical costs

Camp Fire drone photo
Photo taken on the Camp Fire by a drone in Magalia, California near Indian Drive.

With tens of thousands of homes being destroyed in the last year in California wildfires it should be a very high priority for home builders and local governments to swiftly adopt the practices that can greatly reduce the vulnerability of structures. It is not a given that if a large rapidly-spreading wildfire approaches a house it will ignite and burn to the ground.

Media reports sometimes marvel at how an occasional structure will be spared, and may describe it as miraculous or random. Instead, it is based on science. Some structures are designed, built, and maintained to be less vulnerable than others. The other half of the equation is what is within the home ignition zone — what will become fuel within 100 feet. If there is continuous vegetation or other flammable material in that zone that can carry the fire, especially close to the structure, it stands less chance of survival.

But for now let’s think about the structure itself. There are several useful reference guides for architects, home builders, and zoning boards containing information that can lead to designs and building codes that can help keep a fire from turning into a disaster.

• International Code Council’s International Wildland Urban Interface Code (IWUIC),
• National Fire Protection Association’s Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire (Standard 1144), and
• California Building Code Chapter 7A—Materials and Construction Methods for Exterior Wildfire Exposure.

Headwaters Economics compared the costs of new construction of a typical home vs. one with wildfire resistant standards for a three-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot, single-story, single-family home representative of wildland-urban interface building styles in southwest Montana. Below are excerpts from the article:

compare costs wildfire resistant homes

We examined costs in four vulnerable components of the home: the roof (including gutters, vents, and eaves), exterior walls (including windows and doors), decks, and near-home landscaping. Overall, the wildfire-resistant construction cost 2% less than the typical construction, with the greatest cost savings resulting from using wildfire-resistant fiber cement siding on exterior walls, in lieu of typical cedar plank siding. While cedar plank siding is typical in the wildland-urban interface of western Montana, fiber cement siding is already a common choice in many regions because of its relative affordability, durability and low maintenance needs. Wildfire-resistant changes to the roof resulted in the largest cost increase, with a 27% increase in gutters, vents, and soffits. The following sections describe the wildfire-resistant mitigations for each component.

Are planned communities safe from wildfires?

And, can we learn to adapt to fire?

Today I was reading an article about how the communities in Northern California are dealing with the risk from wildfire. One item that got my attention was where a “forestry and wildfire specialist” was quoted describing the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa which was devastated by the Tubbs Fire in October of last year.

…a housing development in a rural area that had been built following the highest fire safety standards. Vegetation had been cleared as required, and the homes were built of fire-resistant materials.

The article correctly stated that the development had been “reduced to ashes by the Tubbs Fire”.

“How could that have happened?”, I thought. Fire resistant building standards and cleared vegetation? Firefighters know that if those two characteristics can be checked off, a structure has a much better chance of survival. So how did the community get wiped out?

The Fountaingrove community is 4 miles north of the intersection of Highways 101 and 12 in Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire, the deadliest of the fires in 2017, burned into the north section of Santa Rosa, including the Fountaingrove area. It killed 22 people, destroyed 5,643 structures, and burned 36,807 acres.

map Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas
Map showing the perimeters of the Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires. CAL FIRE October 15, 2017.

I would not call Fountaingrove a “rural area”. The thousands of homes there are very tightly packed, as you can see in the satellite photo below taken about five months before the Tubbs Fire.

Satellite photo Fountaingrove
Satellite photo of an area in Fountaingrove May 17, 2017, before the Tubbs Fire. Google Earth.

The next three photos are all of the same area, showing structures on Fir Ridge Road before and after the Tubbs Fire of October, 2017.

Fir Ridge Road
Fir Ridge Road area of Fountaingrove before the Tubbs Fire. Google Maps.

Satellite photo Fir Ridge Road
Satellite photo of the Fir Ridge Road area in Fountaingrove, June 16, 2017. Google Earth.

Satellite photo Fir Ridge Road
Satellite photo of the Fir Ridge Road area in Fountaingrove, October 17, 2017. Google Earth.

The photo below was taken before the fire, a few blocks south of the ones above. This home and all others around it burned.

South Ridge Road Fountaingrove
A home on South Ridge Road in Fountaingrove before the Tubbs Fire. Google Maps.

The Fountaingrove area burned in the 1964 Hanley fire. During the 53-year period until the next fire, the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the houses grew back along with a great deal of vegetation. Most of the homes have shrubs in the yards and multiple large trees, often between the houses that are very close together. Some of the structures are partially obscured from aerial photos by limbs hanging over the roofs.

It is difficult to tell if the homes in these photos were constructed of fire resistant materials. But it is clear that other Firewise principles were not being followed.

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

In a fireprone environment there should be no flammable material within 5 feet of a structure, and in the Home Ignition Zones 5 to 100 feet away, trees need to be 6 to 18 feet apart depending on the distance from the building. If on a slope, these distances have to be increased substantially.

An excellent video that elaborates on these principles has been produced by the NFPA. It points out that the areas in between the trees do not have to be nuked. But to be fire resistant they need to consist of green grass or fire resistant small plants, and should be raked or mowed close to the ground.

If a structure meets these Firewise guidelines, it stands a much better chance of surviving a wildfire. However, if the weather conditions are extreme, such as 60 mph winds and single digit humidity which can lead to spot fires igniting a mile ahead of the main fire, it can be difficult to save a structure.

Most homes are ignited not by the main flaming front of a fire, but from burning embers that land out ahead and start new fires. Likely receptors for these embers are leaves in a gutter, mulch, wooden decks, lawn furniture, attic vents, and accumulations of dead grass, pine needles, leaves, and other flammable material.

When a community is initially planned, the engineers may have done some things right, such as the design of the streets, and water systems. But if everything else is left up to the knowledge and discretion of developer and homeowner, very important principles might be ignored.

Fountaingrove did not meet all of the Firewise guidelines, but the streets were wide, making it easier for large fire trucks to access the structures. The very close spacing of the homes means that if one burns, the radiant heat alone can ignite its neighbor.

Other things to consider in mitigating the wildfire threat include multiple evacuation routes — if one becomes compromised by the fire, another could remain open. Large open spaces without flammable vegetation can serve as safety zones for residents who can’t escape. Backup electrical power sources that can keep pumps running so that community water tanks remain full can ensure firefighters have water at hydrants.

With the warming climate leading to extreme fires and fire seasons that are nearly year round, it is inevitable that deadly fires will strike many wildland-urban interface communities. Under the conditions we have seen in recent years, casually ignoring the threat will lead to more fatalities and property damage. It is not IF a fire will hit a fire prone area, but WHEN. The best solution is to learn to live with and adapt to fire, not ignore it.

Many factors can lead to an area being vulnerable to wildfire, including fire suppression leading to a buildup of vegetation, density of homes like at Fountaingrove, failure of homeowners to use Firewise principles, lack of community standards, insurance companies not understanding the issue, the federal government reducing expenditures for vegetation management and prescribed burning, lawsuits that halt vegetation management projects, and cutting the numbers of firefighters, air tankers, and Type 1 helicopters. When politicians take hold of just one of these issues while ignoring the rest, it can make it impossible to have a rational conversation about adapting to fire.

Discussions need to be thorough and nuanced, not politicized and influenced by industry that profits from using just a single, ill-conceived concept. And zeroing in on one vague term like “raking” and “poor forest management” simply confuse the general public when the complete picture is not illuminated.