Is there a way not to burn? Looking beyond individual solutions

California is still burning, as I write this. Last week’s middle-of-the-week post, inspired by the wildfires in the Western USA, was focused on ways that individual property-owners can mitigate their fire risk.

Santa Rosa, CA, Oct. 9, 2017: Photo by Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris via ABC News.

But individuals are not always able to control their surroundings completely enough to take all those steps. Where are your 30- and 100-foot “zones of defensibility” when you live in an apartment building like the one in the photo above, or a densely-spaced neighborhood like the one in the photo below?

With apologies, I grabbed a screen-capture because I wanted to show the contrast in what had originally been published as an interactive graphic from ABC News. To see the original, please go to the article.  Keep scrolling!

Remember, the residents of this community sought out housing they could afford, in an attractive neighborhood that had been safe for years. Here is a mind-blowing, in-depth report by ABC’s Matt Guttman. He talks about the speed with which the fires advanced. He also gives some background on the neighborhood and the people who lived there.

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With a lovely climate and access to natural beauty all around, it was a desirable place to live, work, and retire. No one expected a wildfire to come through and make it a deathtrap.

But the wildfire did come, and when it did not everyone got out in time, despite  heroic efforts by first responders. Lots of things went wrong (Murphy’s Law strikes again), including with the alert systems.

Community planning is more important than we may think, in all kinds of ways–but disaster preparedness and mitigation is definitely one of them that I hope will get more attention as our environment grows more hazardous in this age of climate change.

Some of the principles I touched on in last week’s post can be scaled up to the community: not only the idea of zones of defensibility noted above, but also concepts such as the fire danger of developments on a slope, and community building codes.

Other considerations include ensuring that fire equipment can get to burning buildings, whether permeable paving designed to mitigate runoff can stand up to the weight of fire equipment, and many more. Sometimes even seemingly offbeat solutions can work really well, too. Consider wildfire mitigation via goat-power:

Simply not developing some areas because of their increased risk (see slopes, above), or to use as “fuel breaks requires community planners with the fortitude to stand up to the determined efforts of short-sighted, quick-money interests. Their offers can seem very attractive . . . until the disaster happens. Cool heads and long-term planning are going to matter more and more.

IMAGES: Many thanks to ABC News for the still photos from Santa Rosa, and also for the moving report by Matt Guttman from there. The still photo of the wildfire threatening houses is from Anchorage, Alaska’s web page about community planning for wildfire mitigation, and the goat video is courtesy of YouTube and Denver 7 “The Denver Channel” (ABC again!). Many thanks to all!

This week it’s wildfires–is there a way not to burn?

There must be few more horrifying things than to watch a wildfire come sweeping down a canyon straight toward you and your home. Yet it’s more and more likely all over the world, thanks to global climate change.

That horror is alive and on the march in California this week, both in the wine country of the northern part, and in the Anaheim Hills near Los Angeles. Not so very long ago Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho were dealing with a similar disaster.

Each time the flames go up, we see these horrifying videos, and our hearts go out to the victims. But if you live in a fire-prone area (technically, that is, if you live anywhere, since fires can burn anywhere! But especially in mountainous forests or drought-stricken plains), is there anything you can do to beat back the risks, before you have to beat back actual flames?

Even if your home has a complex roof (multiple surfaces and places where debris may accumulate), keeping burnable debris cleared off can reduce your fire vulnerability.

As it happens–although nothing is foolproof–there are several things that home- and business-owners can do, to make their property less “burnable.” The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) has published guidelines that lay out several strategies to help you fight the fires before they come.

Some strategies require thinking WAY ahead–as in, when you’re planning to build in the first placeChoosing your site is one important thing: building on hilltops or at the top of a steep slope with combustible vegetation downslope is like putting your house at the top of the chimney.

The University of California-Berkeley has created an online Builders Wildfire Mitigation Guide with lots of specific strategies builders can employ, to lessen the vulnerability of buildings to fire.

Flying embers can ignite an otherwise-fire-resistant building if they get inside unprotected vents.

Building for fire-mitigation includes things such as using less-burnable materialsdesigning to avoid collection-points for burnable debris, using vent designs that protect agains flying embers, and employing things such as intumescent coatings, that swell when exposed to fire-condition temperatures to block air flow, insulate against temperature buildup, and/or retard fire access to vulnerable areas.

Fire-rated rolling window shutters don’t have to be ugly. These also offer increased security against burglaries.

Some retrofits also are possible. Flat, tempered-glass skylights resist fire better than domed plastic-glass ones. Fire-resistant shutters can help defend windows that otherwise might blow out under high-heat conditions. Re-shingling or re-siding in more fire-resistant materials is also a smart move.

Debris and brush beside a house: recipe for fire disaster.

But sometimes all it takes are awareness and taking common-sense precautions. How many times have you seen junk or debris piled up around someone’s house, or bushes growing so close they brush the siding? Imagine a fire catching there. How quickly would the house go up?

Sadly, these gorgeous foundation plantings are within the 5-foot area of IBHS’s Zone One. The “before” picture, while less beautiful, was safer from a fire-mitigation point of view! But there are compromises that can still yield a beautiful yard.

Most wildfire safety guides recommend you think of the area around your building in “zones.” IBHS defines Zone One as the first five feet out from your building. IBHS recommends you should have fewer combustibles in that zone. Thus, be careful of too much brush or vegetation in that zone, as well as fences, decks, etc. that are made of combustible materialsMany other guides combine IBHS’s Zones One and Two into a single, 30-ft. Zone One, while still emphasizing the “defensibility” idea.

This diagram clearly shows a nice collection of really smart fire-mitigation ideas.

Especially in ecosystems that have evolved to adapt for fire, many guides recommend planting native species, which are better fire-adapted, especially within your first 30-foot perimeter. Another common-sense precaution is avoiding “fire ladders,” that is, bushes or shrubs under taller trees, that can offer more fuel for fires. Clearing brush and dry materials is not only fire-smart, but it can improve “curb appeal.” Spacing trees and bushes farther apart allows them room to grow, and keeps fire from leaping from one to another.

Burning bushes underneath can doom trees that might otherwise survive.

We can never completely fireproof our homes, and some fires can’t be stopped in time. But wouldn’t we all love to be the “oasis of green” in the charred landscape if the worst happens, and a wildfire comes through? It’s actually possible!

No, it’s not photoshopped. Thinking in terms of defensible space really does save homes and lives.

IMAGES: Many thanks to CBS News for the video about mid-October, 2017 fires in California. I also appreciate the “Fire-Safe Marin” website’s article on roof issues for the photo of the complex roof with burnable debris; Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service for the diagram of fire behavior on a slope, and the Indiegogo page for Ember Deflector vents, for the photo of embers flying around a gable vent. I am grateful to the Trident roller shutters page, for the photo of the green shutters by the patio; to the Firedawgs brush removal page for the photo of boards and dead bushes by a house; to Houzz website for the photo of the foundation planting; and to Tractor Supply Company’s detailed graphic showing fire defensibility zones around a house. Many thanks to World Atlas for the photo of bushes burning underneath trees, to illustrate “fire laddering,” and to the Ross Valley Fire Department’s excellent article on defensible space, for the “miracle” photo of the unburned home.

Fires gone wild

The Artdog Images of Interest

Three major signals of climate change’s onset are increased rates and ferocity of fires, deepening drought, and increasingly violent storms. Today’s image focuses on fire.

Firefighters worked for days to control wildfires around Mecklenberg County, NC in November 2016. I hope this photographer didn’t get singed, taking this behind-the-burning brush photo! Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate a photographer’s credit.

This North Carolina fire was only one of hundreds (it’s surprising, how difficult it seemed to be, to find a definitive total) that burned in the US in 2016. An interactive map of 2016 wildfires in California shows general locations by date range.

Total number of fires may be down, but total acres burned have doubled in 30 years.

A study released last October (2016) concluded that “human-caused climate change is responsible for nearly doubling the number of acres burned in western United States wildfires during the last 30 years,” according to Bill Gabbert, of the Wildfire Today website.

IMAGE: Many thanks to WSOC-TV Channel 9 in North Carolina for the dramatic fire photo, and to Wildfire Today for the chart, compiled by Bill Gabbert, showing acres burned.