Imagine losing not just your home, but your books, pictures, your favorite shirt, your children’s art and every other little thing that you’ve stored there. Imagine it all gone to ash and smoke forever.
That’s happened to scores of families in Southern California this year, and peak fire season isn’t even over yet. It’s a stark reminder that 6 million people in the region live harm’s way when it comes to wildfire, according to the research group Climate Central. That threat is expected to grow as the state’s population increases.
On top of that, many firefighters and scientists think fires in the West will likely be bigger and hotter in the future, thanks to climate change. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of threats like that, but architect Don Ross says even the most at-risk homes can put up a fight against fire. He should know. He’s a member of the Crescenta Valley Fire Safe Council, and he works with communities like Briggs Terrace, where a dense pocket of homes is surrounded by two fire-prone hillsides, sitting just above the Sierra Madre fault with only one road going in and out.
That means an earthquake could strike, cut off the road trapping residents and knock over a power line, sparking a fire.
“It all works together to create a soup of hazards, for lack of a better phrase,” Ross said. Still, even in this neighborhood, there’s a lot homeowners can do to safeguard against disaster. “Notice he’s got fire resistant exterior wall material,” Ross pointed out during a drive through the area.
The home he’s referring to is what’s known as “fire hardened,” meaning the owners took steps to reduce the chance it would burn. There are plenty of examples like this in Briggs Terrace. These houses have stucco walls instead of wood siding, fire-resistant roofing, screens on attic vents to keep out embers and fire retardant decks. In fact, according the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, building codes mandate that new homes in fire prone areas adhere to such standards.
However, older homes built before the codes took effect don’t need to retrofit to be fire-safe unless the owners plan to do significant new work to the exterior. Ross passes one such home in Briggs Terrace, just a few doors from a fire-hardened home.
“All this wood, this is like ‘eek,’ but they are older… and there’s a lot of fire hazards,” he said. A house like this isn’t just a danger to itself. It can also be a threat to neighbors if it catches fire because it can burn a long time, allowing the blaze to spread more easily.
That’s why it’s also important to have what’s called “defensible space” around a home, said Alexandra Syphard, a researcher with the Conservation Biology Institute. That’s the idea that people should clear trees and shrubs directly around their homes and keep larger plants to a minimum for a distance of 100 feet or more. This prevents nearby yard plants from catching fire and spreading it to a home. And it gives firefighters room to maneuver if they have to battle a house fire.
Syphard said some experts even suggest mowing down plants for up to 300 feet around homes, but she said that might be counterproductive. She’s studied hundreds of burned houses from past wildfires and found people may actually be clearing too much.
“Within the first 50 to 60 feet there is a significant chance that it will reduce your risk of burning in a fire,” she said. “Anything beyond 100 feet provides no significant benefit.”
By that she means the chances of avoiding fire don’t significantly increase with clearing beyond 100 feet. In fact, she thinks clearing too many native plants and shrubs can actually increase fire danger by giving non-native grasses an opportunity to spread.
“When embers land on evergreen shrublands, they are much more likely to just go out,” she said. “When they land on a dry grassland, that’s just tinder.”
Fire-hardening homes and setting up defensible space though are bandaids on a larger problem. Syphard and others say the number one way to prevent homes from burning is to stop building them in wild areas. People are by far the number one cause of fire in Southern California, and the region’s population expected to jump by 4 million over the next few decades. LA County alone is projected to see an extra one million residents over the next quarter century.
Trends suggest we’ll keep building further and further into what’s known as the urban-wildlands interface, putting more and more homes at risk. At the moment, there’s no real way to stop that, said Thomas Scott, a natural resource specialist based at UC Riverside.
“I think elected officials would be very reluctant to tell someone who had property they couldn’t put a home on it,” he said. He noted there are federal laws stopping people from building in certain flood zones, and state laws stopping construction on known earthquake faults, but there are no similar laws to keep people from building in fire-prone areas.
That’s partly because fire zones are so common and partly because so much of California is already built out.
“The question would be in the coast ranges in California or in the Sierra Foothills would there actually be an opportunity to say the kind of fire that would come up this canyon would be too severe to fight so we can’t have houses there?” Scott asked.
Currently, insurance companies can charge more for structures in fire-prone areas, and the state sticks some rural homeowners with fees to help cover fire prevention costs. But even that’s been controversial. Trying to legislate where people can and cannot build would be a very hard sell, Scott added.
Don Ross, with the La Crescenta’s Fire Safe Council, thinks people should be allowed to build homes wherever they want, as long as they understand and accept the risks that go along with that.
“I am very big on property rights,” he said. “I’m very big on adults making decisions for themselves as long as they are informed decisions.”
For now, Ross and others will keep doing their best to inform those decisions in hopes that those in harm’s way will have a fighting chance against fire.
Source: “Fire-Proofing Homes in Fire-prone Areas,” (89.3 KPCC, August 2016)