One bit of good news that came out of last week's fires in Southern California is that fire officials determined that at least five master planned communities in San Diego County's Rancho Santa Fe area survived because builders used a fire-protection program known as shelter-in-place.
"Shelter-in-place worked brilliantly during this last fire," said Mick Pattinson, CEO of home builder Barratt American.
"Not a single home was lost," he said, adding that his company plans to use the shelter-in-place concept for its next project, a 1,380-unit master planned community in Santee, Calif.
"I just go by results," said Cliff Hunter, fire marshal for the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District. The five communities that were saved are The Bridges, The Crosby, Cielo, Santa Fe Valley, and 4S Ranch.
Hunter credited the close cooperation between his group, the builders, and the county building department for putting shelter-in-place into practice. San Diego County does not issue building permits unless the builder submits a fire protection plan from a certified fire consultant.
Hunter and most fire experts say they've been using shelter-in-place concepts for several years. The basic tenets of the program are for new homes to have indoor fire sprinklers, use noncombustible materials for exteriors such as roofs and gazebos, and have wide roads and open spaces so fire equipment can easily access the community.
Other important components include installing fire hydrants within 500 feet of each home, have a landscaped area roughly 50 feet from the home where non-flammable native vegetation such as cacti are planted, and have a so-called fire suppression zone from the top of the slope to any wildlands in which any brush is thinned out so the fires can't spread.
"One thing we do that's very important is that we have annual landscape inspections," Hunter said.
"One woman once planted 22 cyprus trees, and I told her to take them out, it cost $25,000, but it had to be done," he said.
"If those trees would have been there and her house caught on fire, her neighbor's house would catch fire and the fire would spread," Hunter explained.
Dave Bacon, president of Firewise 2000, a fire protection consulting company in Escondido, Calif., which works closely with builders such as Hovnanian Enterprises, KB Home, and Lennar, said emphatically that shelter-in-place saves lives.
He said evacuation is not always the best option.
"At a certain point the decision to evacuate is too late because the escape route is cut off," Bacon explained. "People could be heading into a death trap and not know it."
"In the 2003 Cedar fire all the people were told to evacuate," said Bacon. "Had the 14 people who were killed stayed at home many of those people would be alive today," he explained.
In the aftermath of the fire, environmental groups and celebrities such as George Carlin and Jamie Lee Curtis criticized builders and developers for building too close to brush areas at a time when the region was going through a severe drought.
Bacon disagreed, saying that if builders do shelter-in-place correctly, there's no reason they can't build. While he did not have hard facts, Bacon said he's fairly certain that about 90 percent of the more than 2,000 homes that were destroyed in the most recent fires were older homes in communities that did not have a proper fire-protection program in place.
Ronny Coleman, who was California's state fire marshal from 1992 to 2001, said shelter-in-place can only work if everyone in the community buys in.
"The only communities that can do it are the ones that plan for it," Coleman said. "If shelter-in-place is not planned for, you might as well pack up your bags and leave," he said.
For more information on shelter-in-place, visit www.firewise2000inc.com and www.esci.us.
Editor's Note: BUILDER magazine's November cover story by freelance writer Ted Cushman will focus on what home builders and developers can do to increase the odds of survival for homes and for those who risk their lives to protect them.