brushfire approaching a home
weberfoto/Adobe Stock brushfire approaching a home

California’s Napa and Sonoma counties conjure up images of beautiful vineyards and rolling hillsides, but the picture has changed since wildfires struck the area in October. The disaster left 43 people dead, devastated over 160,000 acres, destroyed 5,500 homes, and partially destroyed 4,000 more.

The risk isn’t limited to Northern California. Ferocious wildfires are raging across Southern California this week, destroying hundreds of homes so far and forcing thousands to flee. Affected residents will soon face the same questions that victims of the October fires are dealing with now.

With so many residents without homes, the immediate reaction is to rebuild quickly, but some design and architecture experts familiar with the situation are urging caution. They feel it’s important to consider resilient, environmentally appropriate design before rebuilding.

“I hope for a continuation of a gathering of the minds that will lead to rebuilding a safer place for the occupants and public,” says architect Towan Kim, principal in charge of residential projects for BraytonHughes Design Studios in San Francisco. The studio has a number of clients who have homes in the area that burned down. Despite the need to rebuild quickly, Kim has had conversations with colleagues about how to rebuild "in the most meaningful way."

Towan Kim
Towan Kim

His sustainable design measures for the wildfire-prone areas include:

--Revamped building codes. Kim predicts that one potential issue with rapid rebuilding will be how quickly city planners can implement new codes. Building consensus on prevention techniques should take precedence over haste, so architects and authorities can come up with ways to lessen the speed and damage of future wildfires. "Building codes began because of fires,” Kim says. “It is often events like this that propel one to refine the codes and standards."

--Building envelope. Based on a conversation with a Napa area residential client, Kim realized that different components of the site burned differently. Because of this, he suggests that as homes are rebuilt, careful attention be paid to building envelope.

“Maybe adoption of the current codes used in wildfire prone areas, which require meeting strict standards for exterior envelope, should be considered, even if some of the affected areas are within the city limits and are not required to follow these codes right now,” he says. He notes this would improve fire resistance of roofs, walls, and windows. Other elements to consider are flame and ember resistant vents for roof attics and crawl spaces.

--Safety measures. “It’s important to continually expand our knowledge on the new technologies that can maximize safety,” Kim says. Examples include heat-activated shutters, emergency generators, audio alarms, and rapid garage door openers with the manual override in case of power failure.

--Infrastructure. Communication is a key when dealing with emergency situations. During the wildfires, cell towers were destroyed and there was often no way to warn residents to evacuate. To overcome this, Kim suggests a warning system similar to the one used in Japan to alert citizens about a tsunami could be considered. The early stages system includes sensors and alerts citizens to evacuate. In the case of wildfire, the device would be deployed to sense wild fire and detect dangerous levels which would be followed by a warning to citizens.

--Sprinklers. Kim also urges clients to consider installing a deluge-type sprinkler system outside their homes to help minimize fire damage. "In rural areas, fire departments are stretched over greater distances. An automatic deluge system could help slow the fire down and give the fire department time to arrive."

While affected residents want to return quickly, city planners in affected areas have an opportunity to create regulations that may help prevent mass devastation. With codes that recognize the potential for wildfires, residents can have new homes that prove more resilient to the forces of nature, Kim adds.