LET’S BUILD OUR HOUSES IN A WAY THAT THEY ARE LESS FLAMMABLE. CALIFORNIA IS LEADING THE NATION IN THIS.
CK: An area [of fire mitigation] we look closely at is home hardening. This means building our houses in a way that they are less flammable. California is leading the nation in this. We are the only state that has building codes that are specific to building in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Turns out that when people follow these codes, which were put in place in 2006, known as Building Code 7A, which is for new construction and major renovations, their homes are much safer. This however is a small fraction of our housing stock. Over 99% of California housing that falls within the WUI are not affected by this building code. A guess would be that the maximum number of housing units built to this code would be less than one million of approximately 25 million as a base number for housing stock.
One area we need to figure out is just how to harden the homes that are in the most high-risk areas and unfortunately, some of the homes that are at the most risk, are owned by people who simply can’t afford to do much of the remodeling suggested by these codes. Upgrading in terms of materials is not going to significantly build equity in your home. Switching from wood-siding to fiber-cement siding will add less equity than adding marble kitchen countertops. This is a problem. Many WUI areas are full of low-income homes, such as mobile homes, which are basically tinder. It’s not like people who live in mobile homes can afford to build a fire-resistant home.
PB: This raises the issue of a social requirement for affordable housing that is being answered by creating mobile home parks, which are mostly occupied by low-income seniors. This means we are putting some of the most at-risk members of our society in what is one of the more vulnerable housing circumstances. Is it possible to look at other affordable housing alternatives that are less flammable?
CK: Two key things we have to do here to revise the building codes: eliminate exclusions and loopholes. Also, are there ways to rethink how we might fund more universal change that would address some social justice issues?
For instance, we live in the Sierra Nevada. We have a relatively low risk of earthquake damage. However, because we live in this state, it is the law that we have available to us earthquake insurance. Earthquake codes are not limited by earthquake zones as to where the code must be applied. Every house built in the state of California has to conform to earthquake codes. This is a legacy of 1906 and the way earthquake codes have evolved. However, there are huge parts of the state that are absolutely flammable but don’t currently fall within the WUI because of the way the Federal government has mandated these policies and the way the map is delineated across the West. A great example of where this is problematic is that many of the most catastrophic fires, like the Paradise fire include the urban core area of the town. If it is an urban core, it is not considered part of the WUI. This is true for most communities in the Sierra Nevada. This is a loophole that will be seen again and again. One of the most egregious examples would be the Tubbs Fire which burned Coffey Park. Coffey Park is over 2 miles away from anything that would be considered WUI. Over 1000 homes were lost in this fire. Yet, when they started rebuilding, every single house did not have to rebuild to the higher building standards. We are setting ourselves up for repeat disasters in places like this.
We could revise building codes so that just like we do for earthquakes, every house built in the state has to be built to withstand earthquakes and wildfires.
We have the technology and engineering to do this. We don’t do it because it is about profits for the building industry. There is a lack of incentives in the building or insurance industry to build a fire-resistant home. These are issues that are all tied together. We see that the building industry wants to keep building costs low to maximize profit and the insurance industry is not rewarding people for doing the right thing or mandating requirements for rebuilding.
PB: I see people in such fear of fire they are clearing their properties of all trees. This seems to magnify climate impacts, as trees protect soil and hold water as well providing many benefits, including home cooling in a much hotter climate, which reduces energy demand. Can you comment on this?
CK: It’s fear that is driving people to remove trees, not just underbrush. It’s also fear on the part of the agencies and insurers that advocate these very simplistic solutions.
The agencies tend to try to get people to take any action. If we can only get people to remember three words, it’s “clear your property”. And that’s not right at all to my thinking. The natural condition of this landscape is not this way. Oaks are not flammable like many other trees. You can see oaks resist fire, and in fact many firefighters consider oaks to be fire screens, they call them ember catchers because embers fall in them, fail to catch the tree on fire and stop fire from spreading.
We live at about 2700 feet in elevation, so it’s mostly oak woodlands and some pines by my home. We have cut almost all pines which were sick or dying from drought, however, our blue and black oaks are drought resistant and are healthy. We have limbed these trees and cut out mistletoe and we burn under them for brush reduction. I have good clearance between my oaks and my tile roof and metal gutters and these oaks give an enormous amount of shade and reduce heat and cooling.
These oaks would also serve to protect our home from fire because they do not burn easily. These are beautiful, big healthy trees and the same is true for some of my pines. Even Eucalyptus can be managed in a way that provides shade, keeps water in the ground and supports diverse microclimates and basically helps to cool the landscape.
Limb the trees, and make sure that the ground stays clear. Taking and keeping the surface clear and limbing the trees so there is a gap to the canopy of the tree is a safe practice. Trees are important ecologically because they help to maintain a lower temperature and hold moisture closer to the surface, while offsetting utility requirements. But that’s a lot of nuances.
Grazing and putting beavers back in the streams are unconventional, highly impactful solutions. Beavers are amazing fire engineers. The key is that beavers build dams and create a massive amount of moisture and open water that the fire cannot touch. There are brilliant scientists, like Ben Goldfarb, dedicated just to this research.
We can build on natural solutions and amplify these solutions and scale them up through engineering and technology.
I am often asked if we can’t solve this fire problem with technology. My answer is always yes, but not the way you think. It’s not going to be predicting fire and sending drones out to fight them, which is how technologists imagine as a solution. Instead, we can build on natural solutions and amplify these solutions and scale them up through engineering and technology.
We already know what works, but we need to have it work rapidly and at scale and to address how much more complex these landscapes are today than they were a couple hundred years ago. This is where technology and engineering can help us build these natural solutions out.
PB: There are places that are remote that have successfully been zoned for zero building, such as the Sierra County area above Pike. Basically, people create fire, so by not allowing people or utilities in extremely remote forests, we can preserve the forest as timberlands and protect people from harm.
CK: Do we start talking about how we protect homes? If you build in the village we will protect your home, but if you choose to live in a rural zone, then you are making a choice to not be defended from fire. These are the types of fires that firefighters can die from defending. If you choose to live outside the village, you need to not expect fire protection.
In the next story, we’ll look at ways to shift from fire suppression to fire mitigation.
This is part two of a four part series of articles based on interviews with pyrogeographer Crystal Kolden.
UC Merced Assistant Professor Crystal Kolden has spent years researching possible solutions to wildfire, including a diverse array of surprising mitigation practices. Her extensive career includes work as a firefighter, fire ecologist and researcher. Kolden is uniquely qualified to comment on issues relating to fire ecology and fire mitigation. She is a Certified Fire Ecologist by the Association of Fire Ecology. Kolden holds a Ph.D.in geography.
I recently interviewed Kolden who provided in-depth solutions to some of the most troublesome issues of wildfire in this time of increasing climate-change impacts. These solutions are presented in four articles, each presenting mitigation solutions from personal options to broad-ranging policies for social good. These interviews were facilitated by Bioneers.org
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