Dangerous wildfires have become an unwelcome staple of California summers. As the world heats up due to climate change and more and more Californians build and buy homes in wildfire zones, death and destruction from wildfires has amplified. In just the past few years alone, we have seen entire neighborhoods and even towns wiped out from ferocious fires. Wildfires can move extremely fast and come on with little warning making it difficult for some residents to evacuate. Now, California architects and engineers are looking for ways to build fire resistant homes and other structures that could save your home and your life.
Wildfires Are Getting Worse
Wildfires are getting worse around the country. However, California tops the charts in numbers of fires and acres burned. And if it seems like it’s getting worse, that’s because it is. According to NASA and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) “Eight of the state’s ten largest fires on record—and twelve of the top twenty—have happened within the past five years.” In that time, wildfires have destroyed 40,000 homes, businesses, and pieces of infrastructure. These fires have also claimed many Californian’s lives- with 108 killed in 2018’s fire season alone.
According to experts, there are a confluence of factors that have made wildfires so destructive lately. The number one reason is global warming or climate change. Climate change has worsened California’s droughts and caused the summer months to become a lot hotter. These risk factors are worsened by overgrown forests and residents moving further and further into what is known as the “Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Area.” This is an area where “ structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.” Essentially, more and more people are living in high fire risk zones.
Wildfires can be Hard to Escape
Fires can burn at speeds up to 14.27 miles per hour and can reach temperatures of up to 1,472 degrees fahrenheit. Sometimes, these incredibly powerful fires can sneak up on people as they sleep or they may find it difficult to evacuate from remote areas. And, in the case of some recent fires, evacuees can find themselves trapped on narrow roads surrounded by flames and other fleeing traffic.
In a home made out of the standard materials like wood, you would have almost no chance of survival in the direct path of a wildfire. That’s why many architects and engineers are now working to make homes and other structures using fire-resistant materials and other preventative methods. Their hope is that one day, sheltering in place during wildfires will become a safer, reliable option.
Fully fireproof homes are not yet a reality, but there are many ways to prevent a wildfire from overtaking a home.
Unlike fires that start inside your home, wildfires sweep over structures like a wave. That’s why it is important to create “defensible space.” This involves tailored landscaping, fire resistant materials, sprinkler systems, and more.
Ways to Make Defensible Space for Your Home:
Create Fire-Resistant Landscaping
Because fires use dry grasses and other plants as fuel, it is important to strategically landscape with fire resistant plants like Yellow Ice plants and French Lavender. Lawns and other plants should be regularly watered and not allowed to dry out.
Avoid Composite and Wood Decks
Composite and wood materials burn easily. If you do want a wood deck, opt for Ipe, which is more flame resistant.
Use Fire-Resistant Materials
You can use materials like brick, adobe, stone, or concrete- which won’t ignite during a wildfire.
Stop Embers from Entering Your Home
Embers can quickly cause the inside of your home to catch fire. Prevent them from entering through openings like vents, shingle roofs, garages, and eavestroughs by installing fine mesh or fire dampers over them.
Install a Sprinkler System
You can place sprinkler systems inside your home, around your deck and patio, and even all around the exterior of your house to temper approaching flames.
Consider Creating Fire Resistant Fencing
Install fire-resistant fencing around your property and even steel fencing between you and your neighbors. Steel fencing between close-together buildings (within 20 feet) can “serve as a radiant barrier, providing added protection should a neighboring building ignite and burn.” This means that the fire will be less likely to jump from home to home.
Install Automatic, Roll-Down, Fire-Resistant Shades
This should be done over all of your windows. Windows are the weakest part of your home when it comes to preventing fires as they can easily break in high heat.
Ideally, to make truly fire resistant homes, you would have to include most or all of these features. Architecture companies like Atelier Jørgensen can design a beautiful, modern, fire-resistant home that includes most of these features and more. The company has even designed this stunning home to replace a home burned down by wildfires in Napa.
Even with all of these features, wildfires could still overtake your home. When given the choice, should you stay behind and risk your home burning down with you in it, or leave and risk getting trapped in your car on a narrow road?
Stay or Go?
You may be thinking that it seems counterintuitive to stay put in the event of a wildfire. In some ways, you’re right. In 2009, on Australia’s tragic “Black Saturday” fires, “more than half of the 173 people killed had been sheltering inside a home.” Australia’s fire policy has long been to either “leave or stay and defend.” It is terrifying to think that many people who perished in the fire might have taken the latter approach. However, on the other side of the world, in Malibu, California, sheltering in place for a wildfire had a very different outcome for Pepperdine University.
In 2018, during the Woolsey fire, Pepperdine University chose to have their students shelter in place rather than try to evacuate along the crowded PCH. Pepperdine, equipped with their own defensible space in the form of irrigated lawns, hardened buildings, and sprinklers, remained unharmed. Still, the decision was controversial and many felt that the university’s plan needed to be reassessed. However, to this day the Los Angeles Fire Department and Pepperdine uphold the policy saying “The University’s shelter-in-place plan is well-practiced and historically proven successful.” and that “There are a limited number of ways to travel to and from the campus. These roads may be closed, congested, or dangerous as wildfires can travel quickly and change unpredictably.”
According to experts, it is always better to evacuate if there is the time and ability to do so safely. The thing that fire resistant homes can do is give you a fighting chance if you can’t get out in time. Of course, in the event of a wildfire in your area, be sure to closely monitor and follow local authorities’ instructions.
While we’re still a long way off from buildings that will act like a protective fortress during wildfires, creating defensible space and implementing a “stay and fight” plan could mean the difference between life and certain death.
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