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Sustainable Living in a Fire Hazardous Area - Part 1

By Frans Velthuijsen

The first word in the sustainable living mantra Reduce, Re-use, Recycle is especially worthwhile considering when you are living in an area prone to wild fires. No matter what kind of house you live in, Zero-Carbon footprint, Zero-Energy, or your good old Gold Country home, if it burns down to the ground, you will have to start all over again and use all new materials and labor to rebuild what could have been a perfectly good home for the next few generations.

Even non-out gassing carpeting and no-VOC paint, Energy Star appliances and Forest Stewardship Council certified lumber will burn to ashes when your house goes down as result of a forest fire. What can we do to save these precious resources, even in the presence of a forest fire?

Over the years fire fighters and insurance companies have studied in great detail how it is that homes catch on fire during wild fire events. As it turns out this is not a simple no-brainer, although, there is a lot of common sense involved.

After years of educational articles in the media most of us are now aware of the need for defensible space around our homes, 30 feet clear of brush and 100 ft of otherwise reduced fuel landscaping (check your local government handouts for details). All these landscaping regulations are designed to reduce the risk of an out-of-control forest fire in inhabited areas, and increase the chances of fire fighters to protect your home from a direct hit in the path of the fire.

Surprisingly, forensic research found that most homes lost due to forest fires were not even in the path of the fire itself. Extensive video footage and photos taken from flyovers and on the ground after the fire show that most homes that burned down to the ground were up to several miles away from the actual fire, but were in the wind path and as a result were subjected to a sustained rain of burning embers. The trees and vegetation around these homes is still green, while the homes are in ashes. What happened?

The Banner Mountain Homeowners Association organized an educational event at the Seaman s Lodge this May 30 (11:00-1:00 open to the public) to raise people s consciousness about their home s susceptibility to fire. Several experts show with the help of photos and videos how homes catch on fire. This event culminates with an actual fire, caused by flying embers thrown on a demonstration deck-wall assembly, with a fire engine of our local Fire Department on standby.

The websites below have lots of valuable information for any one interested in this subject: 

http://www.bannermountain.org/
http://firecenter.berkeley.edu/quarles/squarles.htm
http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/16667

What forensic research of burnt down homes outside of the actual wild fire areas shows is that certain construction details are especially susceptible to catching on fire. Most vulnerable are horizontal combustible areas such as wood decks, shade arbors. Also windows, roof and foundation overhangs, eves and eve vents, gable vents, roof valleys, skylights, wood siding, deck furniture are often the initial cause of fire.

Just like new State and County regulations address landscaping, new Building Codes have changes to improve the fire resistance of new homes and developments. With so many older homes in our fire hazardous neighborhoods it seems like a good idea toconsider what we can do to improve their fire resistance as well.

Part 2 of this article will deal with some of the practical details of fire resistance retrofitting existing homes.

Zero-Energy Homes with Geothermal & Solar Energy Conservation, Indoor Air Quality, Seismic & Fire Resistance Retrofitting



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