HOMES BUILT IN WOODED OR BRUSHY TERRAIN are at risk of burning if a wildfire passes through the surrounding area. California's October 2003 wildfires set a new record for property damage, but scientists say the threat will only increase. Not only are more homes being built in the “urban-wild-land interface zone,” but climate change means conditions favoring fire will be more likely in future years.

With destructive fires fresh in mind, Western communities are increasingly adopting the International Code Council's (ICC) International Urban-Wildland Interface Code, or versions of it, to control the construction and landscaping of homes built in fire country. For sites judged to carry a high fire risk, the code specifies clearing and drought-tolerant planting in “defensible space” near homes and fire-resistant construction details for buildings.

LIT UP: California wildfires in 2003 were visible from space (top). Flames threaten a Chula Vista subdivision (bottom). The city is working on a customized version of the International Urban-Wildland Interface Code.
LIT UP: California wildfires in 2003 were visible from space (top). Flames threaten a Chula Vista subdivision (bottom). The city is working on a customized version of the International Urban-Wildland Interface Code.

It sounds easy, but adapting the model code to local situations is no simple proposition. Chula Vista, Calif., fire official Justin Gipson says he has been working with consultants for about a year on a project to tailor the ICC's code language to his city's needs, as an upgrade from the current Uniform Code version.

The best way to protect homes is to have a 100-foot-or-wider cleared buffer space, Gipson says, but that can conflict with ecological conservation. If a developer insists on building next to protected vegetation, fire-resistant construction methods are required. “But that raises the cost of construction,” says Gipson, “and then the politics start.”