Building to Survive in Wildfire Country
Don’t get burned: The right materials and details are a start. Landscaping and regular maintenance can help. But even these steps sometimes aren’t enough.
If you want to build a house in the state of California, you’ll first have to consult a set of maps to find out whether the property is in what’s called a “fire hazard severity zone.” If it is, you’ll be required to follow specific construction guidelines designed to minimize the chance the house will burn down in one of the many wildfires that sweep through the state every year.
These rules, which are part of the California Building Code and are spelled out in the International Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Code, address everything from roof coverings and window glass to vent openings on eaves and cornices. In tandem with landscaping practices that keep combustible vegetation safely away from buildings, the WUI (pronounced “woo-ey”) building codes offer a relatively effective way of protecting buildings from fire.
Except wildfires don’t always follow a script.
Last October, what became known as the Wine Country or North Bay fires in Northern California burned over 210,000 acres of land, wiping out more than 8,000 structures and killing at least 42 people. It was the most destructive wildfire event in the state’s history. As state officials at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) were sorting out those details, another major blaze struck—the Thomas Fire in Southern California. The blaze burned at least 270,000 acres to become the third-biggest fire in state history, and it struck well outside what fire experts had considered California’s normal fire season.
There’s no doubt that WUI code requirements saved some homes from destruction, though just how many is impossible to say. In Santa Rosa, the 2800 structures that burned to the ground in October weren’t even in an area deemed to be at high risk. Whole neighborhoods left in smoking ruins weren’t included on…