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Op-Ed: Build to Survive: Homes in California’s burn zones must adopt fire-safe code

SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL

After the apocalyptic Camp Fire reduced most of Paradise to ashes last November, a clear pattern emerged.

Fifty-one percent of the 350 houses built after 2008 escaped damage, according to an analysis by McClatchy. Yet only 18 percent of the 12,100 houses built before 2008 did.

What made the difference? Building codes.

The homes with the highest survival rate appear to have benefited from “a landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions – requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese.

When it comes to defending California’s homes against the threat of wildfires, regulation is protection. The fire-safe building code, known as the 7A code, worked as intended. Homes constructed in compliance with the 2008 standards were built to survive.

As many as 3 million homes stand in what the state calls “very high fire hazard severity zones,” according to Cal Fire. These areas, where the climate and the presence of combustible foliage can lead to tinderbox conditions, are destined to burn. The data on which homes survived the Camp Fire should be a call to action for every city in the danger zones.

Unfortunately, short-term thinking can triumph over common sense. Cities facing severe fire risks can avoid compliance with the fire-resistant building codes, or choose to avoid their obvious advantages, despite the fact that “a new home built to wild-fire-resistant codes can be constructed for roughly the same cost as a typical home,” according to a report by Headwaters Economics.

Take Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, where the Tubbs Fire killed five people and destroyed 1,321 homes in 2017. The neighborhood wasn’t considered a fire hazard zone, unlike some other areas of Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire proved otherwise, but Coffey Park still isn’t designated as a “very high fire hazard zone” by Cal Fire.

“City officials are OK with that,” according to The Bee. “Although developers rebuilding Coffey Park are being urged to consider fire-resistant materials, city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said the city doesn’t see any reason to impose the 7A code in the neighborhood.”

Mertens suggested high winds on the night of the fire meant officials have no reason to require fire-safe construction as Coffey Park is rebuilt. One fire scientist called Santa Rosa’s stance “an error in judgment.”

Folsom also appears to have its head in the sand with regards to fire risk. It’s allowing the Folsom Ranch development to be built without adherence to the fire-safe code. The parcel of land south of Highway 50 was formerly managed by Cal Fire and designated as a moderate fire risk zone, which would trigger the fire-safe building requirements. Once Folsom annexed the land for the new development, the city decided to opt out of the 7A code because the area was never considered a “very high” fire hazard zone.

The city will require “vegetation management” plans and fire-resistant fencing. But they may eventually put 25,000 people into non-fire-safe housing in an area Cal Fire knows has a higher risk of burning.

Getting officials and developers to follow the fire-safe code in increased risk zones is hard. But the even bigger problem is how to retrofit the millions of homes built before the new standards existed.

“What are we going to do about the existing housing stock that’s been built in these places?” asked Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara interviewed by The Bee. “For the existing housing stock that’s out there, that isn’t built to these codes, we have a massive retrofitting issue on our hands.”

“You’ve got to get in and retrofit,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing McClatchy’s reporting during a press conference at the state’s Office of Emergency Services operations center.

Assembly Bill 38 is a good place to start. The bill by Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa would provide $1 billion in loan funds to help homeowners retrofit their properties. It’s not enough money to retrofit every home, but it’s a start and that can raise public awareness of the dire need for fire-safe retrofits in hazard zones.

The state fire marshal is currently developing a list of low-cost fire retrofits that the state plans to promote once it’s finalized in 2020.

In addition, Cal Fire is revising its fire zone maps, and the “very high fire hazard” zones will surely spread over a larger portion of the state. This time around, local officials won’t be able to opt out of the requirements, as they can under current law.

A series of recent “atmospheric river” storms made fire season seem like a bad memory. But it’s all too easy for most Californians to forget that these rains feed the growth of vegetation that turns into kindling.

Thanks to McClatchy’s analysis, we now know fire-safe building codes can mean the difference between survival and destruction. When the next big incinerating fire barrels down on a city full of ready-to-burn homes in the hazard zone, we can’t claim we didn’t know better.

Source: https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article229425004.html

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Rebuild Green Expo in Santa Rosa showcases safer, eco-friendly home options More from The Press Democrat Deputies: Lake County man arrested for carrying loaded gun while claiming to be on security detail Mueller investigation finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy Wineries with the best scenic hikes in Sonoma Valley LeBaron: Recalling contentious history as county, city explore joint quarters Geeking out on Gouda, and many other cheeses Anyone spotted the two naked mannequins stolen from Santa Rosa home? Smith: Botox banditry is a thing, a Santa Rosa plastic surgeon learned A day at the beach: hauling away a ton of trash left by the Russian River flood Man attempts to rob, then assaults Petaluma man and woman North Coast salmon fishing outlook best in years Santa Rosa police arrest three at Trowbridge Street home Has Roseland seen any changes since joining Santa Rosa in 2017? Roseland Village project: ‘Catalyst’ development faces challenges Kamala Harris calls for federal investment on teacher pay Ethiopian Airlines chief questions Max training requirements First-of-its-kind US nuclear waste dump marks 20 years Helicopters rescue Norway cruise ship passengers amid storm Police catch hit-and-run suspect after finding damaged car near Petaluma collision scene Trump, Israeli leader have mutually beneficial relationship Anti-Brexit marchers flood into London, demand new vote IS loses all territory, but its shadowy leader still at large US-allied Syrian force declares victory over Islamic State A look at Russians who became mixed up in Trump probe Firefighters rescue woman, dog from car partially submerged in Santa Rosa creek Activists wonder if California still in Trump plan for offshore oil drilling Rohnert Park construction workers detain suspected thief Coffey Park rebuild ramps up 1 dead, 2 injured in Highway 101 collision near Geyserville County mulls how to spend $14 million windfall on homeless services Local boy becomes ambassador for Down syndrome awareness Watchdog: FEMA wrongly released personal data of victims of 2017 disasters California boy, 1, fatally mauled by 2 dogs outside grandparents’ house Sanders to hold weekend rally in SF Key findings coming on Mueller report — but not quite yet Psychedelic pioneer Ralph Metzner dies in Sonoma at 82 Trump says he’s reversing North Korea sanctions because he ‘likes’ Kim New Petaluma nonprofit building English-Spanish bridges Sonoma to limit number of tasting rooms downtown ‘Brace ourselves’: Cyclone death toll tops 600 in Africa Woman killed in Hwy. 101 crash near River Road ID’d Golden Gate Bridge tolls going up Newsom declares state wildfire emergency to speed prevention efforts 3 arrested in gang-related robbery at knifepoint in Santa Rosa Sanders aims for strong showing in delegate-rich California County health program for the homeless under state scrutiny for low enrollment

Austin Murphy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Amid booths featuring postmodern kitchen appliances and gleaming delivery systems for solar power, the table bearing the hay bales seemed a tad out of place.

Sorry, make that straw bales.

“Hay Is For Horses, Straw Is for Houses,” proclaimed the bumper sticker greeting visitors of the California Straw Building Association, one of most popular — and old school — of the 62 exhibits at Friday’s second annual Rebuild Green Expo, a showcase for all aspects of how to build “a healthy, low-carbon home.”

Another goal of the expo was to dispel myths about affordability and practicality of “rebuilding green,” said Ann Edminster, member of the Ecological Building Network, which organized the event.

The straw building association table sat in center of the exhibit hall at Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building facing the Pioneer Water Tanks station, across the aisle from the booth for Modular Lifestyles, whose 371- square-foot Tiny House on wheels was one of the event’s top crowd pleasers.

Homes built with plaster-coated straw bales apparently fared exceptionally well in the 2017 North Bay wildfires that were the impetus for this expo. The straw bales inside the plaster are so dense and compact that “it doesn’t burn very readily,” said the genial straw building associtaion rep, Jim Furness. “It would be like trying to light a telephone book on fire, if anyone remembers what a telephone book is.”

The Bay Area is a nerve center, an unofficial capitol of “the green building world,” said Bruce King, a structural engineer and the author of the book “Making Better Concrete.” After the North Bay fires, he recalled, “we were all calling each other, asking how we could influence the rebuilding that was coming.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9308607-181/rebuild-green-expo-in-santa

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A few Fountaingrove fire survivors opt to rebuild more fire-safe homes after fierce Tubbs fire

Martin Espinoza, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When deciding whether to replace his charred Fountaingrove home with a house made with wood or concrete, William Cavalli considered two things — history and the fable of the Three Little Pigs.

More than 50 years before last October’s devastating Tubbs fire, the 1964 Hanly fire followed a similar destructive path from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, burning through a far less-populated Fountaingrove area. And way back in 1870, the hilltop neighborhood was torched by wind-driven blazes that also originated in the Calistoga area.

Cavalli, 73, said that was enough to convince him to build a more resilient home. His new house on on Garden View Circle is essentially an above-ground concrete residential bunker designed to be fire-resistant and earthquake proof.

“That’s three fires. I started thinking maybe we got to do something different,” Cavalli said. “It kind of made sense to me. We joke around, going back to the story of the Three Little Pigs.”

Cavalli is among a handful of Fountaingrove residents rebuilding their houses burned in last year’s fierce wildfire using concrete or steel frames rather than wood. The historic fire, the most destructive in California history, torched 5,636 structures, including more than 1,400 of homes in their neighborhood.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8761670-181/a-few-fountaingrove-fire-survivors

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The era of megafires: the crisis facing California and what will happen next

Daniel Swain, Crystal Kolden and John Abatzoglou, THE GUARDIAN

Three scientists explain the unprecedented danger facing the western US and call for new solutions to a growing threat from building in wildlands, fire suppression and climate change.

California is no stranger to fire. The temperate winters and reliably dry summers that make the Golden state such an attractive place to live are the same conditions that make this region among the most flammable places on Earth.

But even for a region accustomed to fire, the continuing wildfire siege has proven unprecedented. Although it is only early August, numerous very large, fast-moving, and exceptionally intense fires have already burned vast swaths of land throughout the state – consuming hundreds of thousands of acres and thousands of homes and claiming at least nine lives, including four firefighters. State and national firefighting resources are stretched to their limits; choking smoke inundated the state capital of Sacramento; and much of Yosemite national park is closed indefinitely.
Largest wildfire in California’s history expected to burn for rest of August
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California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has characterized these devastating wildfires as California’s “new normal”. But it would be a mistake to assume that the region has reached any semblance of a stable plateau. Instead, the likelihood of large, fast-moving, and dangerous wildfires will continue to increase in the coming decades – and it will combine with other demographic and ecological shifts to produce a large increase in the risk of megafires that threaten both human lives and the ecosystems we depend upon.

Immediately on the heels of California’s deadliest and most destructive fire season, just a year ago, the early ferocity of 2018 has unnerved even veteran firefighters. While the number of fires in California to date is unremarkable, the total area burned is extraordinary: five times the five-year average, in a decade that has already been characterized by fire activity well above historical levels.

The causes are complex, and people are part of the problem. In 1980, 24 million people lived in California; today there are nearly 40 million. Much of this population growth has occurred outside of the dense urban core of cities, resulting in rapid expansion of housing in suburban and semi-rural areas adjacent to wildlands.

Of the tens of thousands of homes burned by wildfires in California in recent decades, nearly all were located in this suburban-rural borderland. With housing shortages and high prices plaguing cities throughout the state, it is unsurprising that residents build on the fringes, places often replete with natural beauty. Yet residents are often unaware of the risks inherent in living there, and the need to mitigate those risks accordingly – their lives may depend upon it.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/07/california-wildfires-megafires-future-climate-change

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Op-Ed: A stark reminder of the importance of controlled burning

Jim Doerksen,  THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

My wife and I live on a beautiful LandPaths property on St. Helena Road in northeast Sonoma County. For more than 50 years, we have managed the property for timber production of about 50 percent Douglas firs and 50 percent redwoods and includes many native heritage specimens of hardwood trees. We have managed this forest to be as fire resistant as possible by pruning lower branches, thinning the trees, and burning brush piles.

One very important issue that seems to have been overlooked is the part played by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. This is the agency that notifies the public when it is a “spare the air day.” The rules and regulations are daunting and virtually impossible to adhere to, especially in forest management.

This is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to the air quality district in June 2016 in which we expressed our concern that air quality district standards were having an adverse effect on forestry cleanup “and will probably result in a mass uncontrollable fire” in Sonoma County.

“Not enough is being done about cleaning up all the brush and dying and fallen trees. To make matters worse, we have had a huge outbreak of bark beetle and sudden oak death. To add insult to injury, PG&E, in its great wisdom, has cut thousands of trees under the transmission lines and has left them to decay or burn.”

The analysis post-fire from CalFire agrees with our opinion as being correct. The fires have done a thorough job of cleaning up the forest floor, but frequent fires are necessary to prevent build-up of tree debris, weeds and brush.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/7972381-181/close-to-home-a-stark