Forestry board’s fire-safe regulations won’t block fires

A wildfire approaches homes in Southern California. (Photo: StacieStauffSmith Photos, via Shutterstock.)

The California Board of Forestry is currently preparing to adopt an update to California’s Fire Safe Regulations. If adopted, the current draft will NOT stop California from burning.

Instead, the new regulations will undermine California’s efforts to solve the growing housing crisis by preventing new fire safe homes from being constructed.

California’s current Building Code Chapter 7A established construction standards to protect life and property for buildings located in the wildland urban interface, or WUI. The State Fire Marshal’s own fire statistics demonstrate that homes built to these standards  have proven to resist the intrusion of flames and embers, significantly reducing the fire risk to homes built in the WUI. And, when those homes are built as part of a “master planned community” where all the homes are built to these standards, the risk is almost non-existent.

The overwhelming evidence is that the wildland fire problem comes from the existing stock of homes built prior to fire safe building codes in high-risk fire prone areas.

Master planned communities are fire-hardened. They are typically designed with homes built of ignition-resistant materials, good fire access and evacuation routes, good water supply, residential fire sprinklers, undergrounded utilities, strong defensible space, green belting with slope and ridge reductions to minimize fire spread, landscaping and fire-resistant plant species restrictions, and Homeowner Associations (HOA’s) to provide maintenance for all the fire safety provisions.

In addition, master planned communities typically add new fire stations, fire equipment, and more firefighters to provide for a rapid initial fire attack where it didn’t previously exist.

With all the news about California wildfires over the past 15 years it has gone unreported that no “master planned community” built after the adoption of California Building Code Chapter 7A has suffered any significant loss.

The overwhelming evidence is that the wildland fire problem comes from the existing stock of homes built prior to fire safe building codes in high-risk fire prone areas. These are homes built in the WUI and are typically overgrown by many drought-ridden fuel types (brush, shrubs, trees, etc.) that are ready to burn rapidly.

Many have narrow roads, inadequate fire access and evacuation routes, and inadequate water supplies. Nearby power lines ready to drop in high wind conditions along with steep slopes and inaccessible terrain complicate the fire problem.

Solving the California wildfire problem will require statewide retrofitting of homes with fire-resistant materials and the maintenance of defensible space within entire communities in high fire severity zones. Individual homes that are retrofitted among a group of non-retrofitted homes only slightly improves their chances of survival.

The Board of Forestry’s Fire Safe Regulations do nothing to address this main California wildfire problem. Rather, the new regulations will hamper or stop new fire safe master planned communities from being developed. Over time, as more of the older non-retrofitted communities are lost to wildfire, added pressure to the California housing crisis will continue to grow.

The California wildfire problem did not happen overnight. It will not be resolved quickly.

However, we must focus on retrofitting entire communities in high fire severity zones to be fire safe, as well as build new master planned communities if we are ever to resolve the wildfire problem and housing crisis.

The Board of Forestry must recognize this reality. Absent that, California will keep burning!

Editor’s Note: Ruben Grijalva is a former director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), and is a  former California state fire marshal and state forester.

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