California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week called for homeowners to aid the state in preventing wildfires by following landscaping laws designed to keep such fires from spreading.
The state will be deploying new firefighting resources this spring, including aircraft and personnel, the governor said. “We need the public to do its part as well … So this year I instruct CAL FIRE to step up education and enforcement of our fire laws. We will be more aggressive in cracking down on dangerous and illegal fireworks, and we are going to start citing property owners who don't follow the 100-foot defensible space law.”
That means the possibility of a $500 fine for homeowners who fail to clear brush around their homes after a fire department warning.
“Half the battle is what homeowners do before the fire starts,” added Kate Dargan, California’s state fire marshal. “We know that even if we have hundreds and hundreds of more firefighters, things like last fall [when runaway wildfires that cost 10 lives and destroyed 3,000 structures] are going to happen in California. They're going to happen with predictability. To mitigate those losses, save homes and save lives, we have to get ahead on the prevention and mitigation side as well,” she said.
California home builders agree and have been cooperating with CAL FIRE officials on upgrades to the state’s building code and landscaping regulations. “The defensible space provisions have been in place for some time, and while some counties [such as Ventura County in Southern California] have been doing a great job of inspecting and enforcing, others have not been so diligent,” says Bob Raymer, spokesperson for the California Building Industry Association in Sacramento. In 2003’s catastrophic October firestorms, Raymer notes, 3,600 houses were lost, but only 24 of those were in Ventura County, despite the major fires that struck Ventura. “Of the 32,990 requests for disaster assistance received by FEMA, less than 1 percent of those came from Ventura County residents,” Raymer says.
In last year’s wildfires, several San Diego-area developments that were built beyond code, with advanced defensible-space landscaping and careful fire-resistant building details, showed exceptional fire resistance. They survived virtually unscathed even as hundreds of homes in nearby areas burned to the ground. As a result, the California Building Industry Association is supporting a state bill that would make those “shelter-in-place” methods standard for developments in fire-prone areas across the Golden State.
(For more on the shelter-in-place success stories and the California code upgrades, see “Surviving Wildfire” in Hanley-Wood’s Journal of Light Construction (http://www.jlconline.com/cgi-bin/jlconline.storefront/EN/Product/0804surv), and “Facing Fire” in the Builder Archives (http://www.builderonline.com/codes-and-standards/facing-fire.aspx).
Other states could benefit from California’s experience. Urban-wildland interface fire is a national problem, not just a West Coast phenomenon, experts say. While California is just gearing up for wildfire season, other states are already fighting fires. Earlier this year, the “Trigo Fire” in Torrance County, N.M., burned 13,000 acres and destroyed 59 homes between April 15 and May 11. In Colorado, three firefighting personnel died fighting two different fires in April. And this week, brushfires caused parts of I-95 in Florida to be closed and hundreds of residents near Daytona Beach to evacuate. Experts say California’s prevention approach, which combines vegetation management with fire-resistant construction details, would be effective throughout wildfire-prone areas of the United States. For more information, visit www.firewise.org.
Ted Cushman is a contributing editor to BUILDER Online.