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Recent wildfires inspire builders to make homes more fire resistant

Matt Villano, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On a ridge above Geyserville, one new house stands alone in the burn zone.

The home, roughly 80% finished when the Kincade fire roared through the area in late October, is perfectly intact — not a single shingle out of place. Everything around it is black and charred.

Yes, firefighters beat back flames to protect the structure. But the home also saved itself.

Tempered windows withstood extreme temperatures and did not shatter. Fire-retardant siding made with cement stopped flames from overtaking the exterior. A metal roof prevented embers from penetrating the top. On top of this, a total of 100 feet of defensible space around the house minimized the likelihood that the place would catch fire.

In short, teams from Santa Rosa general contractor HybridBuild developed the 2,000-square-foot home to withstand a major wildfire and it did.

“The fire couldn’t take the house because of the upgrades,” said Tony Negri, co-owner of the company. “You could look at what happened and say, ‘They got lucky,’ and they did, but really it was just a case of some of these extra (innovations) working the way they were supposed to work.”

The Geyserville house is a perfect example of how careful construction and an emphasis on fire resilience can put homes in a better position to withstand the onslaught of a raging fire.

Put differently, as climate change and other, naturally occurring factors wreak havoc on Sonoma County ecosystems, the anecdote offers textbook examples for the kinds of features and construction methods that homes of the future likely will need as wildfires become a more regular part of our collective reality.

“Nature (will) always be in charge,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “We can no longer afford to armor our way out of risk with concrete, steel and bunkers. We need to respect nature and work with it.”

As Wick suggested, a key component to making homes more resilient is preparing for the worst.

For many developers, this means abiding by rules and regulations for building in what is known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI. (Contractors colloquially refer to this as woo-ey.)

These rules are laid out in Chapter 7A of the California Building Code. Currently, at least in Sonoma County, this means all new structures must be “built with exterior construction that will minimize the impact on life and property and help structure to resist the intrusion of flames and burning embers projected by a wildland fire and contributes to a reduction of losses.”

Contractors have responded by implementing several different tools and products to “harden” homes to fire. Negri’s company has turned to tempered glass windows, metal roofs and fiber cement siding. One particular project, a spacious new home under construction in downtown Healdsburg, features fiber cement siding.

Other firms have experimented with rammed earth construction, as well as Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) products such as Rastra blocks, which are made with foam, and Faswall blocks, which are made with wood chips and particles.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/specialsections/rebuildnorthbay/10484149-181/rebuilding-sonoma-county-making-the

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags , , , ,

Op-Ed: Climate change and California’s looming insurance crisis

Michael Smolens, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

California is so concerned over the future cost and availability of insurance it’s calling in the United Nations for help.

Recent reports detail how homeowner insurance policies in regions prone to wildfire are being canceled or becoming significantly more expensive.

Developments planned for high-risk fire zones are not only being challenged politically and legally over whether they diminish the quality of life for people living nearby but also over public safety and climate change concerns.

Eventually, homeowners in certain coastal areas are certain to have a similar, if more slow-moving, experience as sea-level rise increases flooding and erosion, making their dwellings a riskier bet for insurers. Some residents on unstable bluffs have for years faced insurance issues, in addition to the challenge of pursuing public or private efforts to shore up the cliffs.

Tens of thousands of beachfront homes across California face the risk of chronic flooding or worse, according to projections. It may be 50 to 100 years before it gets that bad, but property values are likely to be affected along with insurance.

This will extend beyond homeowners to businesses and, to varying degrees, governments.

At the root of the insurance challenge is climate change, which many experts say is exacerbating wildfires and flooding and making storms more destructive. Insurance companies, like governments, are increasingly stressed trying to grapple with that.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9943760-181/smolens-climate-change-and-californias

Posted on Categories Land UseTags , ,

Move back or move on? Thousands with burned lots in Sonoma County are confounded by their futures

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Lots for sale or sold:  https://www.pressdemocrat.com/multimedia/9162508-181/map-database-burnt-empty

Like other Tubbs fire survivors, Kris and Allen Sudduth initially wanted to rebuild their two-story home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

After the October 2017 wildfire, the Sudduths met with a builder and tentatively selected a home design for their lot on Hopper Avenue. After further consideration, they concluded a contractor couldn’t rebuild the life they once had in the fire-ravaged neighborhood in the northwest section of the city.

“They would build a house, but it wouldn’t be my home,” said Kris Sudduth, a part-time nurse.

The Sudduths realized what they really wanted was a chance to start over in a different area with a home in the countryside. So in May 2018, they bought a single-story ranchette on a half-acre property west of Santa Rosa. A month earlier, they had sold their charred Coffey Park lot to an investor, who has yet to begin rebuilding a house on it.

This will be a pivotal year of decision for about 2,100 Sonoma County fire survivors — those who unlike the Sudduths have yet to commit to rebuilding or selling their burned lots. These survivors constitute about 40 percent of people who lost 5,334 homes in the 2017 wildfires, predominantly from the Tubbs fire, which ranks as the second-most destructive wildfire in California history.

 

The neighborhood between Mark West Springs Road and Pacific Heights Drive was completely destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, October 10, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

What they ultimately decide to do will determine whether the pace of rebuilding on the large swath of north Santa Rosa, blackened by the infernos, accelerates this year. Only 150 of the houses destroyed in the fires have been rebuilt as of last week, according to city and county records.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/local/9060028-181/move-back-or-move-on

Posted on Categories Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , , ,

Santa Rosa townhouse project in Fountaingrove cleared for construction

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The biggest new housing development in a Santa Rosa neighborhood torched by the Tubbs fire in October 2017 has been cleared by city officials to start construction.

The Santa Rosa Design Review Board on Thursday gave final design approval for the Round Barn Village, a 237-unit townhouse project in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.

San Francisco developer City Ventures plans to build and sell the three-story, three- to four-bedroom townhomes on a 40-acre tract. They are expected to have price tags in the $600,000 range. Twelve of them will be priced below market levels to make them more affordable.

Construction is expected to begin in April. Sales would start in the fall, with the first owners expected to move in during the summer of 2020, City Ventures’ development director Charity Wagner said Friday.

This final go-ahead for the development came almost a year after City Council approved the project. Council members initially hesitated because of concerns about building in a hillside area in the northern part of the city prone to wildfires.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9179365-181/santa-rosa-townhouse-project-in

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Habitats, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Wildland development escalates California fire costs

Bay City News, NPR

The sky above Ron Beeny turned black.

The 71-year-old was stuck in traffic as he evacuated from his home in Paradise on the morning of Nov. 8.

Trees and brush lined both sides of the two-lane road. In the darkness, Beeny had no idea where the fire was. A former firefighter, he knew that getting trapped between walls of fuel could be deadly.

“[When] daytime turns to night, the fire is burning extremely intense,” he said.

For more than an hour Beeny inched forward in his red Toyota pickup, heading west toward Chico. His home of 41 years was incinerated by the Camp Fire. The blaze that destroyed Beeny’s home is just the latest mega-fire in California — and the cost of fighting such fires has risen dramatically.

California dwarfs other states in fire-suppression costs, an analysis by a Stanford journalism class has found. The Stanford class analyzed daily reports from the most expensive fires in every state from 2014 to 2017, and found that dense development at the border of wildlands — in communities like Paradise, Cobb, and Santa Rosa — helps explain California fires’ exceptional damage and expense to put out.

A 2015 federal audit showed that fire suppression costs vastly more in these transition zones between wild and developed areas — Wildland Urban Interface areas, or WUIs, for short.

The Stanford analysis of fire costs found that, among the states that spend the most on suppression, California fires overlapped far more with the WUI: More than 30 percent of the 2015 Butte Fire, for example, burned on WUI lands, destroying almost 1,000 buildings. Much of the state’s WUI is made up of chaparral — dry shrubland — that burns fast and hot.

Read more at https://www.kqed.org/news/11713393/wildland-development-escalates-california-fire-costs

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags ,

FIrestruck homes becoming uninsurable

Mary Williams Walsh, THE NEW YORK TIMES

California’s wildfires keep growing bigger, more frequent and more destructive. Of the 20 worst wildfires in state history, four were just last year, giving rise to a record $12.6 billion of insurance claims.

It hasn’t gotten any better this year. The Mendocino Complex Fire in August was the biggest in state history, and the Camp Fire that wiped out the town of Paradise is the deadliest. It had destroyed nearly 12,000 homes as of Monday morning.

This has put pressure on property insurers, some of which have been declining to renew homeowners’ policies in fire-prone areas. When the houses that burned this year are rebuilt, their owners may find that no one is writing insurance there — at least not at affordable prices.

“We’re not in a crisis yet, but all of the trends are in a bad direction,” said Dave Jones, who is completing his eighth and final year as California’s insurance commissioner. “We’re slowly marching toward a world that’s uninsurable.”

Here’s what you need to know about California’s slow-motion insurance crisis.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/20/business/california-fires-insurance.html

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Wildfires: Managing the risk

Dan Farber, LEGAL PLANET

How can we limit the spread of wildfires and save people and property?

Wildfires are already a serious problem, and climate change will only make the problem worse, as I’ve discussed in my two prior posts. Reducing carbon emissions can help keep the problem from growing, but we need to deal with the risks we’re already facing. That is going to require a portfolio of risk management strategies. We need to ramp up all of them.
Land Use Controls.

There are increasing numbers of people moving into the wild-land urban interface (WUI).The USDA’s report on the WUI says that 3.8 million people live in that zone in California alone. Nationally, a million homes were added to the WUI just in the decade from 1990-2000. That simply isn’t sustainable.

Human activities increase the risk of fire from sparks or burns, and homes are typically highly flammable and help fires spread more quickly. Better land use controls could limit development in high risk areas. Easier said than done, however, given development pressures. According to a 2013 study, ” land use planning for wildfire has yet to gain traction in practice, particularly in the United States. However, fire history has been used to help define land zoning for fire planning in Italy, and bushfire hazard maps are integrated into planning policy in Victoria, Australia.” By 2016, however, Headwaters Economics was reporting on five Western US cities that were taking advantage of at least some land use tools to reduce fire risks, though none seem to have imposed outright bans on development in high-risk areas.

Buyouts may be a fallback in extreme situations. Building codes can also help — for instance, by requiring fire-resistant roofs on new houses. Liability rules for fires have to be carefully considered. Making utilities liable for fires can cause them to take greater precautions, but the prospect of compensation could also encourage people to live in unsafe areas. On the other hand, fire insurance costs can send an important price signal about the risks of WUI property ownership, as some Californians are already beginning to experience.
Land Management.

Read more at http://legal-planet.org/2018/10/08/wildfires-managing-the-risks/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , , ,

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