How to Build a Flame-Proof Home

The flames are dying down, and the fire-ravaged communities in Southern California are left to sort through the damage and rebuild. Four fires, spread over a 120-mile area, combined to destroy about 1,000 homes before the deadly Santa Ana winds calmed and firefighters encircled the remaining blazes. Now, as homeowners examine what's left, and deliberate with insurers, new questions are arising. How can they rebuild? Should they build again in the same place?How can they protect their families from the fire next time?

Jim Smalley has some answers. He's the program manager for Firewise Communities, and in a conversation with NEWSWEEK's Andrew Murr, he argues that those who lost homes shouldn't try to re-create what they have lost, but should aim at building safer homes that can survive fires—even when firefighters can't get to the home before the flames do. Communities and states need to insist on better building practices, and to be more careful in planning future communities on the urban edge. Smalley says that those whose houses survived should count their blessings—and then make improvements. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What are the first things that communities should think about as they think about rebuilding?
Jim Smalley:
Well, the first thing they need to worry about is that these people not rebuild exactly what they lost. The tendency is to restore everything just the way it was. You have to get people to avoid building the same kind of structure. The building materials and the vegetation have to be thought out in a better way. Or they want to build bigger. With all the disaster-relief funding with low-interest loans, they can expand the size of their home. Crowding the houses creates a separation problem. And what we've seen time and time again is the fire moves from the vegetation and ignites a home, and that home simply ignites the next home and the next home and the next home.

How do you discourage people from building the wrong houses? What do city, county and state governments need to consider?
I had a discussion last week with Kate Dargan, the California state fire marshal. She and I agreed that land-use planning is the very first decision point that needs to change. We need to change where people are allowed to develop land and what they can put on that land. It's going to be difficult to revisit decisions where people have already built and want to come back, but we can limit future decisions.

What can people rebuilding do? How are these homes going to look?
Part of the things I want homeowners to consider—certainly at the top of my list—are maintenance issues. You can get certain building materials that require very little maintenance. With decking and fencing, there are all kinds of wonderful products that are ignition- or fire-resistant now, and they don't have to be painted or stained. They don't rot. They certainly don't burn. With roofing, people love shake shingles, but those are pretty much banned in most California communities. And people can have that look with noncombustible roof cover. People should think about re-siting the structure, too. If it's too close to a slope, you might move it. In a fire, you want to make sure the house can withstand the wildfire without the fire department being there, or anyone being there. That's sort of the ultimate. We've seen it happen again and again, where a little intervention can save the home.

What kind of landscaping is safe?
It's using the right kind of materials. A fire-wise home can look very attractive and livable. It's not living in the middle of an asphalt parking lot. You can have lawn, or a xeriscape [landscaping designed to conserve water], or a gravel walkway. Aloe and any of the succulents are wonderful plants for ground cover. It's using the right material. Some trees, like oaks and maples, are wonderful. They do not have the high resin content. But we've seen other people who want to leave the highly flammable eucalyptus trees right next to their house. The bark sloughs off like paper and you have the equivalent of three or four dried newspapers at the base of your house. People need to stay away from juniper, which is really volatile.

What should homeowners whose homes made it through the fire do?
For the homeowners now, for those survivors, after you come back and you assess what happened to your neighbors … Now you know what a fire is like. Now start preparing your house for the next fire. People can retrofit. We have a guide on our Web site. If you've got a little bit of money, do one thing. If you have a little more, do this. I've seen it too many times where people move back in and say, "My house didn't burn. I'm lucky." My line is that luck is probability taken personally. There's a probability that you won't be lucky next time. Now's the time to remove that vegetation and take out that wooden fence that acts like a fuse when it goes up to the side of the house. Clean out the gutters, replace flammable material.

Are these fires getting worse?
What people have to understand in Southern California is that they are in a fire environment. That place has burned long, long before they ever got there. The fires are cyclical, but some issues are compounding the problem, including climate change. We're going to see hotter fires, longer fires and fires in places we perhaps haven't seen before. At one point, we used to look at the data that said the California fire season doesn't begin until June or July. Now it's pretty much year-round, starting in January or February. In the Southeast, they used to get two fire seasons, in the spring and the fall. Now they are pretty much year-round.

The single worst disaster here happened at a mobile home park. It's one of the least expensive ways to live in a very expensive part of the county, but officials want tougher rules in place . Are these manufactured homes inherently too dangerous to be in fire zones?
I think there are safe ways for them to be there. Much is in the codes already. You have to have metal skirting around the bottom to keep embers from getting underneath. Basically, the mobile home parks are very dense, and they burn like crazy. So what you want to do is prevent that first home from igniting. What you want to do is have a zone around the outside of the park of safeplanting, and then require [people to] keep the grounds super clean--no leaves, no pine needles, no firewood, no combustibles.I would almost bet that [for] most of those mobile homes … the initial ignition was probably from embers underneath one.

What's the longer-term objective?
The question is how to prevent the next disaster. We're going to have these fires. We want to live in nature. We have to figure out how to adapt our lifestyle, our home, our construction, our community service to support a sustainable environment.People have to understand that there are not enough fire apparatus or firefighters to protect everything. If the home can survive and resist ignition for a short time, then firefighters aren't put in danger. By not preparing your home, you are actually endangering the life of the firefighter. And that's not a good idea.