The tale of the flying embers

When it comes to flying under the public’s radar, building codes probably fly the deepest. That’s going to change in 2008.

Next year, after a decade of discussion and review, new construction s targeting safety in fire-prone forests, prairies and wild lands go into effect in two phases, on January 1 and July 1. Some 5 million homes, 800,000 of them in state high-risk zones alone, are in those areas, covering nearly one in every five acres in California.

The new rules update regulations developed during the 1990s. They were prompted by a basic lesson learned in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which destroyed 4,000 dwellings and cost more than $1.5 billion; and the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego, which killed 15 people and destroyed 2,200 homes.

The lesson?

Wild fires force embers to fly forward. The embers roll under decks, land on roofs, and zip through vents and windows. They can smolder and ignite, destroying a house after the blaze has passed. The embers ignite fires that meld with the main blaze which, in turn, forces new embers forward and ignite more houses. And so it goes.

“It became really obvious that the embers were carrying the fire forward, and that’s how the changes in the building s got going,” said June Iljana, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“The building s are based on new science. We now know that one of the reasons that fires move is that burning embers can travel a mile in front of the fire. Embers get into a home,” she said.

Building experts say the s are crucial for safety.

“Fire officials tell us that once a house starts on fire, it most likely will burn to the ground,” said Bob Raymer, technical director of the California Building Industry Association. “Rarely do you see a house in one of these urban-wild land interface areas catch on fire in which that fire is put out. And once it catches on fire, it usually happens pretty quickly.”

“After the Oakland Hills fire, there was sort of a first run for a statewide fire-safety-hazard s. This time around, the technology is a whole lot better. What were looking at is the second big update of the state fire-hazard maps,” Raymer said.

Even absent building s, clean-cutting a perimeter is fundamental to rural fire safety. Current law requires cutting or trimming to 100 feet around the dwelling; the new rules, approved by the state Building Standards Commission, do not disturb those requirements. The regulations are not the product of a law approved by the Legislature, but were written administratively by state fire and building officials.

The new rules, crafted by the State Fire Marshal after years of discussions with builders, fire authorities, environmentalists, product manufacturers, developers and local and state officials, focus on what’s called the “urban-wild land interface,” a fancy name for homes built in the woods. The high-risk areas aren’t just in the forests, however: Along with the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Shasta-Trinity areas north of reading, the brushy slopes of Southern California are identified as high risk. The Malibu and Bel-Air fires, for example, reflect the risks of tinder-dry brush near homes on slopes. Maps describing the fire-safety areas show higher risks in most areas of the state except the broad swath of the Central Valley and the vast desert flatlands.

The meetings, sometimes contentious, finally resulted in agreement. “You could say things got very, very hot, no pun intended,” one participant said.
Raymer agreed–but said things got worked out.

“I’ve got to admit there were some pretty heated meetings, usually between the product manufacturers and the fire services,” Raymer said. “But I think the issue now is that the local officials and the builders just want to understand what has to be done.”

Tougher fire-safety rules already have been written for roofs and vents, but the new rules expand on those. They include a myriad of new requirements, such as greater use of fire-retardant construction material, enclosing decks to within six inches of the ground, cloaking eaves with fire-resistant material, requiring many roofs to meet Class A fire-safety standards, requiring dual-pane tempered glass for all exterior windows, shielded vents, fire-resistant outer doors, and other changes. A description of the codes can be found at

State enforcement officers and builders believe the per-house cost of the changes will range from $1,200 to $2,500, depending on how many changes the home owner already has made, the square footage, market costs and other factors. The regulations, not retroactive, apply to new construction and major remodels. “If you’re remodeling, you may not have to do it (retrofit to meet the new regulations), but we recommend it,” Iljana said.

Hazard-mapping revisions were adopted recently in 10 counties following public hearings–Alameda, Del Norte, El Dorado, Inyo, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Mono, Nevada, Orange and San Luis Obispo. The state rules reflect minimum requirements, and are superceded by local regulations in the event that the latter are more stringent.

The years of discussions included trips around the state by State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan, who sought to build support for the stricter standards.

“It was impressive. Usually, you don’t find somebody that high up the state food chain going out and spending the time like this,” Raymer said.

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