Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lessons learned about fire resistant home construction


I have DirectTV and receive the local Los Angeles stations. I have to admit it was fascinating watching the live coverage of the southern California fires, especially the live helicopter video in high definition. Mesmerizing, for a firefighter.

Listening to the live on-air commentators was interesting….some of them are pretty good and others…. not so much. It has to be extremely difficult doing live coverage…of anything…. for hours and days on end. A couple of the helicopter pilots who were doing live commentating were pretty knowledgeable. Some of them have been watching vegetation fires burn from 5,000 feet for a long time. You can't help but learn something about fire behavior and aerial firefighting after years at that vantage point.

The live anchors frequently talked about defensible space and were always amazed at why some houses burned and others didn’t in the same neighborhood. They frequently mentioned tile roofs, and they were stunned when they saw some houses burning that had them. As if… having a tile roof and maybe cutting some weeds was all you needed to do to fireproof your home.

We need to emphasize to homeowners that a having a fire resistant roof is only one of many considerations for a homeowner. We should also educate the on-air personalities so they can talk intelligently on the subject when homes are burning. It is a teachable moment we should take advantage of.


The "Randomness" of homes that burned or didn't burn was often mentioned by the news anchors. It's not randomness, it is science, the laws of physics, weather, fuels, topography, home construction, and fire preparedness. It is also the availability of firefighting resources and infrastructure. Like... is there water in the water system? It's a question that is being asked after the water system failed as mega-mansions burned west of Corona, CA the other day. But I digress.

Some firefighters and fire groupies refer to fire as "The Dragon", as if fighting fire were like fighting a living, breathing, thinking animal. If it were, fire would be totally unpredictable, and getting burned by the "dragon" would be.... almost random. But it's not. It is based on the laws of physics.

Firefighters who educate themselves, have an intellectual curiosity, and take advantage of opportunities to really observe fire, can learn to predict what it will do....and how to keep themselves and others safe. Be envious of that TV news helicopter pilot. Some firefighters naturally pick up this knowledge through taking advantage of opportunities and by osmosis. Others, who may otherwise be intelligent, don't.


A friend sent me an article that is in today's edition of the Christian Science Monitor about the lessons learned in southern California regarding fire resistant construction. Here is an excerpt from the article:
LOS ANGELES - The dramatic news footage depicting towering walls of flame, exhausted firefighters, and plumes of smoke don't tell the story. Tearful, day-after tours of the rubble do.

That's when local newsmen with video cameras walk house to house and ask the troubling question: Why was this structure spared when the homes on both sides were incinerated?

Sometimes, even bigger questions nag. Why was this neighborhood obliterated while that one was passed over unscathed?

The facts are slowly emerging. Aside from the heroic efforts of firefighters, improved logistical planning by local officials, increased funding for better trucks, planes, flame retardant and other tools, a key factor in fighting fires here is the proactive initiative of homeowners.

Stricter enforcement of codes adopted by scores of communities in the past two decades has residents clearing out trees, brush, and shrubbery next to their homes. Also, homeowners and communities are taking voluntary preventive measures such as practicing fire-resistant construction.

New California building codes, which took effect in January, ban wood siding and wood-shake roofs from new construction in fire-prone areas. But residents in existing homes are also replacing wood shingles with cement tile and wood siding with stucco as well as rebuilding wood porches to be more fireproof. Entire developments have adopted so-called shelter-in-place construction.

The newer luxury development at Olinda Ranch, near Brea in Orange County, for instance – about 660 homes built with cement-tile roofs, stucco walls, and sprinkler systems – escaped with minimal charring, while the adjacent community of Oak Ridge lost nearly 500 homes. Many of those homes were in a mobile-home park, which prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for a new review of state building codes.......

1 comment:

Coastal said...

I am building a house of a type that would be well suited for the fire districts. It is made from huge blocks of dry stacked concrete called Dac-Art Building System. It is my second project using this stuff. I have photo-journaled the progress at www.ConcreteCottage.com

We are building this way because we are in a hurricane zone, but it would be great for fire zones as well. Two houses of it are under construction in Calif. already.

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