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Rebuilding After A Wildfire? Most States Don't Require Fire-Resistant Materials

Daniel Gorham, a research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety, looks for clues about how homes can survive wildfires.
Daniel Gorham, a research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety, looks for clues about how homes can survive wildfires.

After record-breaking wildfires this year, thousands of people across the West are still clearing piles of charred debris where their homes once stood in the hope of rebuilding their lives.

With climate change fueling bigger, more destructive wildfires, rebuilding offers an opportunity to create more fire-resistant communities by using building materials that can help homes survive the next blaze.

But most states don't require rebuilding with fire-resistant materials, an NPR analysis has found. While California has mandated wildfire building codes for more than a decade in high risk areas, other states have struggled to approve comprehensive rebuilding codes. In Oregon and Colorado, efforts faced stiff and ultimately successful opposition from home builders associations.

Now, despite recent megafires, most property owners in Western states are not required to use materials like fire-resistant roofing or siding when they rebuild, which could slow the spread of wildfires or stop a house from igniting in the first place. As a result, current homeowners and hundreds of thousands new ones who move into risky areas could be left vulnerable to homelessness or harm while the risk of wildfire, driven by climate change, continues to mount.

"It does feel very much like a missed opportunity when it's right there," says Daniel Gorham, a research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by the insurance industry. "We're right there with the opportunity to build back stronger."

Wildfire detectives

Most homes are ignited by embers carried by the wind, which means some homes are untouched while next door, others are destroyed.
/ Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety
Most homes are ignited by embers carried by the wind, which means some homes are untouched while next door, others are destroyed.

It's one of the most maddening things for people who live through wildfires: one home is completely burned to the ground, while next door, the house is still standing, untouched.

In October, fire experts combed through a destroyed neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif. looking for explanations. Two weeks earlier, the Glass Fire swept through at jaw-dropping speed, driven by high winds and hot weather.

"We use these little clues, little things we can read," says Gorham, who studies how structures burn. Among the mounds of blackened debris, his team looked for surviving homes with burn marks that might give clues about the fire's behavior.

The holy grail is finding a trampoline.

"A trampoline is a really good thing for understanding the size of the embers that land," he says. As long as the trampoline doesn't get destroyed, the charred spots across its surface hold a record of what the wind was carrying. Embers are one of the most potent ways a wildfire spreads. The tiny, glowing cinders can be blown miles ahead of the fire itself, igniting roofs, trees or anything else they land on.

At one home, Gorham could see where an ember had ignited the mulch in the yard, burning all the way to the house's deck. But the deck was made of fire-resistant materials and didn't ignite, sparing the rest of the house.

"It's really important that we design and build structures to resist ember exposures," Gorham says. "What you do to the roof, what you do in that immediate five-foot zone around the home and underneath the decks is critically important."

For more than a decade, California has mandated special building codes for new homes built in risky fire zones, known as "wildland-urban interface codes." They specify that roofs, siding and windows must be fire-resistant. Even minor aspects of a house are important, like covering attic vents with fine mesh, which can prevent embers from being blown into the house.

Almost every home destroyed in California this year will need to meet the wildfire codes if rebuilt. The codes are no guarantee, because extreme fires can consume any kind of structure. But they greatly improve the odds.

"These building codes for wildfire-resistant construction do make a difference," Gorham says. "We know that. We see that in the lab and we see that in the field."

But in other Western states, adopting similar codes has hit roadblocks.

Oregon argues for codes

In Oregon, fire chiefs and officials began pushing for wildfire building codes two years ago. The decision fell to Oregon's Residential and Manufactured Structures Board, a 11-member committee that reviews state building codes.

With temperatures warming due to climate change, Oregon's normally damp forests and woodlands have been drier during the summer, priming them for more extreme fires. Fire officials like Ralph Sartain of Ashland Fire and Rescue thought it was only a matter of time before Oregon saw the destructive fires that had already plagued California.

"We're pushing further and further into the mountains but we're not doing anything to protect the buildings," Sartain testified at the board's hearing.

Other voices joined in support. But the home construction industry pushed back.

"I think it's unnecessary," board chair and home builder Janet Lewis responded. "I think it's time to allow Oregonians the freedom to choose where they want to live and the personal responsibility to construct their homes to work with that choice."

The cost of using wildfire-resistant materials became a central sticking point. The Oregon Home Builders Association testified that the new codes would add five percent to a home's price, potentially tens of thousands of dollars.

Those numbers didn't make sense to Sartain. He had surveyed Ashland home builders, who said, for a starter home, the added cost would be between roughly $1,200 and $1,700. A study by Headwaters Economics found fire-resistant homes can be cheaper than traditional homes, thanks in large part to using more affordable fiber-cement siding.

Home builders also questioned the codes because they would only apply to new houses, not existing homes, which could still leave neighborhoods vulnerable. Fire officials responded that even a handful of fire-resistant structures can buy firefighters more time.

"If we start with one house at a time, then we have two houses, then three, then 20, then 50," Sartain says. "It might be able to slow down a fire enough to get the resources into an area to keep it from wiping out entire communities."

In the end, Oregon's wildfire building codes were approved, but they're optional. Cities and counties can choose whether to adopt them, as well as whether to apply them to individual homes or only larger subdivisions.

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"That was very difficult and very frustrating," Sartain says. "We would love to have seen it as a statewide adoption, but we could barely get it passed as voluntarily applied inside of a city or inside of a county. The home builders would not allow it in any way, shape or form on a statewide basis."

After the destructive wildfires this year, the Oregon Home Builders Association says it would be supportive of a statewide wildfire building code if the state completes a detailed map of where they would apply based on fire risk, which currently doesn't exist.

A statewide wildfire council recommended both developing wildfire risk maps and supporting wildfire building codes in a special report in 2019, writing that the "patchwork of inconsistent and sometimes absent role" of codes was posing significant risk, especially as new development grows in wildland areas. Legislation to create statewide maps failed earlier this year.

"Personally, and this is not the association's view, this is my view: I think if you're going to be building houses up in wooded, forested areas, if I was building a house up there, I would take measures to protect the home," says Justin Wood of the Oregon Home Builders Association.

So far, only the city of Medford has adopted the new wildfire codes. The city of Ashland and Deschutes County are currently considering adoption. None of the more than 5,400 structures destroyed across Oregon this year will be required to meet wildfire codes if they choose to rebuild.

Late-season wildfires in Colorado moved unexpectedly fast, like this one outside of Granby. Dry, hot weather extended the fire season.
Jessy Ellenberger / AP
Late-season wildfires in Colorado moved unexpectedly fast, like this one outside of Granby. Dry, hot weather extended the fire season.

Colorado faces pushback

In Colorado, a similar story unfolded.

In 2013, after experiencing two destructive fires, Governor John Hickenlooper convened a task force to examine Colorado's fire policy. The team included both fire officials and representatives from the building and real estate industries.

In their final report, the task force found that using fire-safe materials was one of the most effective measures that property owners could take. They recommended adopting a statewide model wildfire building code, either making it mandatory in high risk areas or creating something that local governments could mandate themselves.

The report noted that counties that had already adopted wildfire codes had seen encouraging results. In the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire, Boulder County found that 100 percent of the homes built in the decade prior survived. They had gone through a county program that required fire-resistant building materials and minimized flammable vegetation. Of the older homes that hadn't completed that program, only 63 percent survived.

Still, seven years later, Colorado doesn't have a statewide wildfire building code.

"Not much happened," says Lisa Dale, who served on the wildfire task force in 2013 when she worked for the state government and is currently a lecturer at Columbia University. "What we found was the building and the real estate industries had very powerful lobbying capacity to argue against state regulation on this issue."

Home builders groups felt that local governments should determine their own codes and rely on educating homeowners about wildfire preparation through outreach.

"I think we question the efficacy of a statewide [wildland-urban interface] code, because we support local codes," says Ted Leighty, CEO of the Colorado Association of Home Builders. "We believed, and still do, that codes are best developed, implemented and enforced by local governments. Each local area has unique issues and circumstances and geography."

Today, at least 16 counties and cities have adopted wildfire building codes in Colorado, though some are limited, only specifying roofing materials. Some counties provide property inspections to help homeowners understand how they might be vulnerable.

But other cities and counties have held off, which Dale says is a sign of how local governments aren't incentivized to adopt tough codes.

"We know local governments across Colorado, across the whole American West, have been historically very reluctant to take aggressive action on this issue," Dale says. "Because remember, local governments get most of their revenue from property taxes. They rely on having a business-friendly environment to welcome new residents and new businesses to their borders."

Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews sits in the wreckage of her home, destroyed by the Holiday Farm wildfire in September.
/ Brittany Bayer
Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews sits in the wreckage of her home, destroyed by the Holiday Farm wildfire in September.

Homeowners on their own

Without mandatory guidelines for building fire-resistant homes, more than 6,000 property owners in Oregon and Colorado will decide for themselves about how to rebuild after one of the worst wildfire years the two states ever experienced.

Many people are still in temporary housing and waiting on the lengthy process of clearing debris and negotiating with insurance companies. So, building fire-resistant homes isn't necessarily top of mind when their basic needs aren't met.

"It's awful, and the morale is just rock bottom," says fire chief Christiana Rainbow Plews of the Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District in central Oregon. "I hear it everywhere I go just how slow and frustrating the process is."

In September, Plews and her crew responded to what they thought was a standard brush fire. But after weeks of hot weather and high winds, it quickly got out of hand, giving some residents just minutes to evacuate. The Holiday Farm Fire eventually burned more than 400 homes, including her own.

"I actually didn't know that my own home had burned for a couple of days," she says. "I went through all the emotions for sure. I was very upset and it was really hard to tell my family."

Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews plans on using fire-resistant materials when she rebuilds, but it's not required where she lives in Oregon.
/ Christiana Rainbow Plews
Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews plans on using fire-resistant materials when she rebuilds, but it's not required where she lives in Oregon.

Chief Plews says she and her husband are just beginning to think about the rebuilding process and what kinds of materials they'll use on their home. But it's tougher for many others in her community.

"If they were under-insured or not insured, what they can afford may not be what they actually want," she says. "They may have to settle for something that's less fire-resistant."

Hundreds are still living in hotels, unable to find even temporary housing. The biggest concern for many is building back as fast as possible, not how they'll build their homes, Plews says.

With the emotional and financial strain of the rebuilding process, the best time to prepare for future climate-driven fires is often the hardest time to do so.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.