As Northern California Burns by Jonathan McKim

As Northern California Burns ~ What Should You Look for When Building a New Home in a Wildland-Urban Interface Zone to Ensure Your Home Stands a Fighting Chance

By Jonathan McKim, AIA, NCARB, CDT, Partner & Principal Architect at MCKIM | GRESH Architects, LLP

I parked my car at the office and walked over to my favorite coffee shop on K Street.  It was still dark, as I like to get an early start, yet I could clearly see, smell, and taste the smoke, and had I not heard on the car radio (I refuse to own a TV), I wouldn’t have guessed just how far away the actual fires were.  It was as if it was a block away.  My mood darkens as I walked one block to the to get coffee, and my thoughts turned to just how many families had lost everything, and the prospect of a rising death toll did nothing to improve my mood.  

By now we have all seen the images of what could pass as a nuclear bomb blast.  In essence, it’s complete and utter elimination that is so shocking, so devastating, so unbelievable, and as an architect, I couldn’t help but to turn to the practicality of design and wonder how could so many houses be reduced to ashes.  More importantly, how do we rebuild to insure this never happens again, or at the very least reduce the extent of damage.  

So that is why when I settled down in my favorite brown chair with my coffee, I went to the CalFire website.  There I found the following: 

17 large wildfires that started in the past 24 hours continue to burn across California and have burned over 115,000 acres. The winds that fanned these fires Sunday night and Monday morning have decreased significantly, but local winds and dry conditions continue to pose a challenge. With the decrease in the winds combined with cooler weather, firefighters made good progress overnight. Sheriff officials have confirmed that 11 people have died as a result of the wildfires in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Yuba counties. These fires have already burned an estimated 1,500 homes and commercial structures. Several Damage Assessment Teams have been deployed to get a full account of the destruction. ~from the Calfire website       

Now it’s hard to comprehend 1,500 homes burning in 24-hours, but it’s not when one takes into account what drives your typical housing development: as many homes as we can fit and as cheaply as we can get away with...  Now I’m sure that’s not a shock to most of you reading this blog, it’s just the biproduct of the American track home industry.  More homes for less money equals more profit.

So, what can be done about it?  Not much, honestly.  No one, certainly not a small Sacramento architect is going to change an entity as big and powerful as the housing industry.  But, I have a big mouth, so I’ll do what I can and will offer some advice as to what you should look out for when buying a new home.  I’ll also share tips on what you can do to your existing home to improve its chances of surviving a wildfire. 

Basically, my small architectural practice is not typical in the sense of what a traditional firm would provide.  My business partners and I spend most of our energy and time designing homes and publishing the plans of which to our online plan store.  We do design custom homes, but we use the same technical details and specifications regardless of the delivery method.  This is done to ensure that our designs are for longevity of the home and not to increase some developer’s or contractor’s profit margins.

With that said, here are some typical features that we use for our home plans, and that we do not waiver on (again, I have a big mouth), since they ensure the home’s chances of surviving a wildfire:

1.     Cement board instead of OSB board: personally, my favorite is 5/8" Durock Next Gen.  Simply put, why would you cover your home in wood chips (OSB board) when you live in an area prone to wildfires.  Please don't make this mistake.  Cement board is the way to go when your home could be in the path of a whildfire.   

2.     Concrete fiber siding instead of vinyl siding or thin coat stucco: As a child of the 1970s and 80s, I've seen enough vinyl siding to last a life time, and let's just pretend that the 1990s and EIFS (Exterior Insulation Finish System) never even happen.  With that said, concrete fiber siding as it relates to fire resistance is a no brainer. 

3.     Operable fiber cement window shutters: yes, they do existing and no, you shouldn't go cheap here.  Just see number 2 above. 

4.     Drop-down panic fire shutters: years ago I completed construction documents (drawings) for a 100,000 square foot house.  The Own, who was about my age (life is so unfair) wanted bullet-proof steel drop-down panic shutters on all windows in the bedroom wing, that would fall into place at the push of a button.  Thus I had to come up with a solution to hide the jamb tracks and coil boxes within the exterior walls, and to say it wasn't one of the most challenging projects of my career would be a lie.  Anyhow, if you have tens of millions of dollars to spend on a house, this would be an ideal solution.  If you're an architect like me, then sorry honey, stick with number 3 above.   

5.     FRC (Fiber Reinforced Concrete) roof tiles: it goes without explanation, but for the same reasons as numbers 1 through 3 above, FRC or even clay roof tiles are the way to go for fire protection.  My favorite isn't actually FRC or clay (I've seen far too many cracked and broken FRCs in my career), but glass.  More precisely, Tesla's solar roof tiles, because we live in sunny California.  Need I say more?    

6.     Reduce overhands and eliminate soffit vents: because you don't want your roof burning from the underside.  

7.     Spark arrestor at chimneys: this is intended to prevent fires, because simply put, the best way to fight a fire is to prevent a fire from starting.  

8.     Rain gutter guards: gutter gutters help limit the amount of debris build-up in your gutters.  You know, like things that can burn.  I liken this to my childhood back in Chester County, Pennsylvania, when my grandmother would build a fire in her fireplace.  First she would stack the logs just so, and second she would place newspaper (of which the burning ink likely explains a lot about me today), and debris such as twigs and leaves.  She would then take her red BIC lighter and light the debris, not the logs.  In a matter of minutes a raging fire would come alive and begin to dance about my grandmother's hearth.  The same can happen on your roof if you don't have gutter guards.  No, not my grandmother and her red BIC, she has been dead for ten years now, and I never saw her on a roof.  That's what she had my grandfather for.  

9.     Landscape gravel instead of wood chips apron at base of house: it baffles me as to why people still pack mounds of dry wood chips at the bases of their homes.  See number 8 above, and consider landscape gravel instead of wood chips, please!  

10.  Limit the amount of landscaping at perimeter exterior walls, and keep the landscape low: for the same reasons as number 9 above, and number 11 below.  

11.  Where possible and if you have the land, create a CalFire Defensible Space Clearance:  

In January 2005 a new state law became effective that extended the defensible space clearance around homes and structures from 30 feet to 100 feet. Proper clearance to 100 feet dramatically increases the chance of your house surviving a wildfire. This defensible space also provides for firefighter safety when protecting homes during a wildland fire. ~from the CalFire website 

12. Finally, the last bit of advice in this blog post has nothing to do with home design.  The advice is to Get Out!  What ever you do and no matter how well designed and built you "think" your home is, do not hunker down.  When the evacuation order comes, you and your family go!!!  By staying you are putter your family and the first responders at great risk.  No house is worth that risk.  You can always rebuild.     

Calfire offers several helpful weblinks that we use regularity when designing homes, and will help you better protect your existing or future home in the event of a wildfire in your neighborhood:

Stay safe, my friends, ~JM