Emphasizing home flammability, as well as vegetation management, can save more homes during wildfires.
Emphasizing "defensible space" fails to address the primary reasons homes burn in wildfires.
Local, state, and federal fire agencies are urged to expand their fire education efforts. Currently, the primary, and sometimes the only message citizens hear is to clear native vegetation ("brush") from around their homes.
While creating defensible space is a critical component of fire risk reduction, it fails to address the main reason homes burn - embers landing on flammable materials in, on, or around the home, igniting the most dangerous concentration of fuel available, the house itself.
Fire risk reduction education must emphasize BOTH how to reduce home flammability and how to create defensible space. As seen in the photo below, many homeowners have complied with defensible space regulations only to see their homes burn in a wildfire.
Educational materials and public announcements must make clear that without addressing the entire fire risk reduction equation, your home has a greater chance of burning in a wildfire. This includes creating defensible space AND retrofitting flammable portions of homes such as,
- the replacement of wood shake roofing and siding
- installation of ember resistant attic vents
- removal of flammable landscaping plants such as Mexican fan palms and low-growing acacia
- removal of leaf litter from gutters and roofing
- removal of flammable materials near the home such as firewood, trash cans, wood fences, etc.
It also must be made clear to homeowners that by having well maintained and lightly irrigated vegetation within the outer 70 foot portion of the defensible space zone can play an important role in protecting the home from flying embers and radiant heat. Bare earth clearance creates a bowling alley for embers and can actually increase fire risk if invaded by flammable, non-native weeds.
The New Message. This photo shows a home with extensive defensible space and proper vegetation management that burned during the May 14, 2014, Poinsettia Fire in Carlsbad, California. Addressing the entire fire risk reduction equation is essential.
The Old Message. This photo, distributed widely after the 2003 California firestorm, creates a false sense of security by implying that defensible space is adequate to protect a home from wildfire.
Federal Grants used to eliminate wood roofs & install ember-resistent attic vents
David Yegge, a fire official with the Big Bear Fire Department, is about to submit his fourth grant proposal to the FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant program to pay up to 70% of the cost of re-roofing homes with fire-safe materials in the Big Bear area of San Bernardino County. Yegge has also assisted the towns of Idyllwild and Lake Tahoe to do the same. The grant includes the installation of non-ember intrusion attic vents.
Yegge’s first grant was for $1.3 million in 2008. He identified 525 wooden-roofed homes in need of retrofits in the community of Big Bear Lake. Only 67 remain. Helping to push homeowners to take advantage of the program is a forward-thinking, “no-shake-roof” ordinance passed by the Big Bear City Council in 2008 requiring roofing retrofits of all homes by this year. San Bernardino County passed a similar ordinance in 2009 for all mountain communities. Homeowners have until next year to comply. Such “future effect clause” ordinances can be models for other local governments that have jurisdiction over high fire hazard areas. “The California Legislature should adopt such an approach and Cal Fire should incorporate such retrofit programs into its new Vegetation Treatment Program,” Halsey said.
In order to qualify for the FEMA grant, a cost/benefit analysis must be completed. “Our analysis indicated that $9.68 million would be saved in property loss for every $1 million awarded in grant funds,” Yegge said. “FEMA couldn’t believe the numbers until they saw the research conducted by then Cal Fire Assistant Chief Ethan Foote in the 1990s. There’s a 51% reduction in risk by removing wooden roofs.”
“The FEMA application process is challenging, but well worth it,” said Edwina Scott, Executive Director of the Idyllwild Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council. “More than 120 Idyllwild homes are now safer because of the re-roofing program.”
The state agency that manages the grants is the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), Hazard Mitigation Grants Division. Cal OES is the go between agency and they decide what grants get funded based upon priority established by the State Hazard Mitigation Plan. Without the help and assistance of Cal OES, it is not likely the FEMA grants would have be funded.
Federal Grants used to install exterior fire sprinklers
The effectiveness of exterior fire sprinklers was proven during the 2007 wind-driven Ham Lake Fire in Cook County, Minnesota. Exterior sprinklers had been installed on 188 properties, including homes and a number of resorts, in 2001. All 188 properties survived. More than 100 neighboring properties were destroyed.
The cost of the Cook County program was covered by a FEMA hazard mitigation grant. The program was finished on time and on budget by Wildfire Protection Systems (WPS), costing $764,255. Minnesota U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar credited the program with saving over $42 million in property value. The grant paid 75% of the cost of the sprinklers. Individual property owners covered the balance. A system from WPS for an average home costs between $10,000 to $15,000.
The sprinklers were so successful that a $3 million FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant was awarded in 2008 to install additional wildfire sprinkler systems throughout Cook County. In 2013, another grant was awarded to install the systems in two additional counties, including properties with low-water resources.