Building a fire-resistant home above and beyond California’s wildfire code is a great first step toward extra peace of mind. Also, maintaining appropriate, well-trimmed landscaping — called “defensible space” — around that home is another proactive move homeowners can make to buffer houses and outbuildings, plus it helps firefighters do their jobs by providing safe access to and around properties. And here in Santa Barbara and Montecito, many homeowners, especially those in the rugged foothills, opt for yet another layer of protection — private fire-protection services.
For nearly a decade, insurance firm AIG has been collaborating with Montecito Fire Protection District to pretreat high-traffic roadside areas, such as trailheads and turnouts, with a nontoxic, biodegradable fire-retardant spray called Phos-Chek. The company is one of many that also provide specialized protection of private property, responding to wind-driven events, such as the Thomas Fire, on a variety of levels. During a fire, for example, private teams stay abreast of the blaze by tuning into radio chatter and attending daily briefings lead by incident commanders; then they report back to homeowners. When situations get critical, it’s not uncommon to find private crews carefully protecting homes alongside publicly funded firefighting agencies. AIG alone has about 75 clients in the Montecito district, according to Chief Chip Hickman.
Other outfits spotted recently during the peak of Thomas Fire’s move through Santa Barbara’s front country included Sacramento-based Mt. Adams Wildfire, whose workers coated structures with white foam (pictured above) as safeguard against drifting embers. Goleta-based Consumer Fire Products was also in the area, as was Wildfire Defense Systems, Capstone, and Firestorm. As long as private teams are properly trained, says Santa Barbara County Fire Department Captain Dave Zaniboni, extra boots on the ground can be helpful.
Throughout much of the West, a yearlong fire season is the new normal, unfortunately. Case in point: the Thomas Fire, which started on December 4 in Ventura County near Fillmore and consumed tens of thousands of acres and hundreds of homes on its way to Santa Barbara County, where it ravaged the rugged foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains between Carpinteria and the City of Santa Barbara. As of this writing, incident commanders are projecting full containment sometime early next year. As the occasional and intense has become more common and destructive, homebuilding has had to adapt. For some backstory on evolving building codes and some tips on home protection, we called a representative with Montecito Fire Protection District.
Giffin & Crane: What’s the big picture of the rules of homebuilding related to wildfire?
Montecito Fire Protection District: The Office of the State Fire Marshal comes up with the fire code and sends it out every three years to various agencies and they are able to amend it as it pertains to their particular district.
Well, the state says all new homes in California —since 2010 — shall be sprinklered. [Here in Montecito] we go one step further because of our wildfire history, which dates back decades. We require all brand new structures, regardless of use —whether it’s a shed or a hobby room or a gym or whatever — to be sprinklered.
What other features must a new home have in a wildfire region?
A home needs to breathe, so it has vents beneath the home and in the attic. But embers would come in through the vents, and homes have burned from the inside. So now homes must has special vents that stop embers with a mesh — and when an ember hits it, the matrix actually closes down so the ember can’t penetrate into that space.
Above and beyond the building code, what can a homeowners do to protect their residences?
Landscaping. There are certain plants that are more fire resistant. Some plants are really oily and can be highly combustible. But a certain succulent or cactus that has a high moisture content less susceptible to fire. Fireproof landscaping is a really common theme in California.
So they can kind of take that extra step by planting the right vegetation?
Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it. And that’s definitely something that we like to work with homeowners on, in the selection of certain plants and where to plant them. But that’s not required. That’s just a recommendation.
Let’s close with your thoughts on homeowners properly maintaining their properties.
Look at plants and trees around your home, and make sure it doesn’t look like a jungle. Don’t have lumber or firewood piled up next to your home. Maintain defensible space because the reality is if I go to a fire as part of a strike team to do structural protection on a home, I evaluate the home to find out if we can properly defend it. I have to determine whether or not we are going to engage on this home. If somebody has done their defensible space around the home, and we can prep and defend the home, we’re going to do that. Or maybe the property is maintained in such great shape that we are not concerned about it. But the ones that haven’t done their vegetation clearing around their home, unfortunately we don’t have the time in those situations to prep it for them. So unfortunately they’re probably going to lose their home.
For more information visit montecitofire.com.