Wildfire, Building Code, and the Astute Homeowner

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.

For example?

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.




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