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Can we design homes to withstand wildfires?

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LA County Fire Photo by Andy Holzman

President Trump has blamed lack of forest management for stoking the devastating Woolsey and Camp fires.

He wasn’t entirely off: California Gov. Jerry Brown himself proposed new legislation this past summer that would make it easier for private large landowners to cut down trees and build private roads on their land to help decrease the spread of fires. Environmentalists and California elected officials pushed back, saying this would benefit the logging industry and overlooked climate change's impact on the fires.

However, the Woolsey and Camp fires burned through federal lands and built up “urban” forest, terrain that can be managed through careful choices of planting, says TreePeople’s Andy Lipkis.

Lipkis has spent 15 years working on fire resilient restoration project sites and says that if you remove non-native "flashy" fuel, like non-native grasses, and plant instead native oaks, mulefat and elderberry that don't easily ignite, you’ve gone a good way to enabling fire to come to the site and then go around and over it, leaving the home and all the native trees intact. In fact, he says, the oak trees are so dense, they serve as fire breaks.

But climate change is the real adversary, impacting private and public lands.

“We've seen fires constantly in our chaparral ecosystem,” says Lipkis. “It's a fire ecosystem but the addition of the fact that the climate has changed... and that includes the hotter hot, wetter wet, drier dry, colder colds and windier winds, so more extreme climate activity that now is here.”

And in the face of ever more intense drought and wind, ever more devastating fires are a new norm.

“We are facing climate extremes from fires to floods to hurricanes and other events that are outstripping our built infrastructure for flood protection [and] for fire protection,” Lipkis said.

Some argue the only solution is to cease encroaching into hazardous terrain.

Since the political will Lipkis says it’s time for Californians to “build ourselves strong now... And that's a process from the community, neighbor to neighbor, all the way up to government.”

So that means strategies from a collective approach to urban forest management to following the example of Australia which suffered a decade-long drought. In Adelaide, for example, he says 50 percent of the homes have installed cisterns that collect rainwater for irrigation and flushing toilets, as well as to have emergency water available on site for fires. The government helps install these tanks.

There are other approaches that seem to work to minimize the risk of fires, such as creating a moat of hardscape around ones home.

DnA recently visited the New Castle in Malibu, which replaced the former Castle Kashan that had burned down in a large fire in 2007. The developer, Scott Gillen, had surrounded the new property with a hardscaped wide pathway and a wall at the perimeter to keep fire at bay, he used non-combustible materials, and added automatic fire sprinklers that are linked to an alarm system that alerts the fire department as soon as they’re triggered.

That’s all fairly pricey. But the New Castle did not burn down in the Woolsey Fire.

But when you rebuild for fire safety at all income levels, Lipkis says you’d want to choose a home with non-flammable siding, have windows that are not going to shatter in the heat and let embers get in, rooftops that are not flammable and that can take water to the roof automatically and then flush burning embers away.

Ultimately, Lipkis says we need really intelligent planning and we need to come together as a community and at the government level to create those guidelines and resources for people in materials, building style, landscape management and practice, and stored water.

It’s also been reported that people who lost their homes in Northern California, after the fires last fall near Santa Rosa, are buying prefab homes because they are faster and cheaper to construct. Prefab homes are shipped from a factory and assembled on site. They make sense given strict statewide building regulations and a shortage of contractors and construction workers, and a high cost of materials. There are still the permitting headaches to deal with, but prefab homes can be approved faster because they’re standardized.

Meanwhile, predictions of rain could mean mudslides, which presents more danger to life and property.

And that creates trouble if water can’t seep through the water repellent top layer of soil derived from the oils in the chaparral.

So in the short-term Lipkis said people should look at where water runs downhill towards their house and see if they can get some guidance from a local fire station and have sandbags available. You want to build a sandbag wall to channel water away from your house.
Just how to do this is the topic of a public discussion to take place at TreePeople on Thursday, November 29. Click here for information about “Resilient Los Angeles: Scaling Up Strategies to Prepare for Climate Change.”

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