Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on July 1, 2019.

Same As It Ever Was

We've known for years that wildfire-resistant building standards work. So why do so many communities insist on ignoring them?

As someone who works in the wildfire preparedness field, I’ve grown to loathe the word “unprecedented.” It seems that whenever a government official or media outlet uses that label, it’s a sign that they either haven’t bothered to look at the many previous examples of wildfire incidents or that they don’t believe it could happen again. Not only is it inaccurate, it’s a tired excuse to go right back to doing the same things that led to the disaster in the first place.

I found the latest example of this cycle on a recent trip to Santa Rosa, California. I visited the Coffey Park subdivision to see how the neighborhood was recovering from the complete destruction it experienced in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Standing among a row of recently built homes, I was amazed to see wooden fences skirting each dwelling. The sites were landscaped with deep layers of combustible wood mulch, which functionally serves as an uninterrupted fuel bed to easily carry fire to the fences and right up to the siding of the new homes. When I asked the lead contractor why more effort hadn’t been paid to ignition-resistance for these homes, which had literally risen from the ashes of a neighborhood that had been destroyed by wildfire, I again heard that dreaded word. The Tubbs event was “unprecedented,” he said. In other words, why use fire-safe materials if this is never going to happen again? My jaw hung open in dismay.

This thinking is extremely frustrating, especially in California. The state is home to some of the nation’s most destructive wildfires, but also to the world’s most detailed and well-developed set of building standards precisely aimed at resisting the wildfire threat. While applying these wildfire building codes could greatly diminish the destruction we see year after year, it’s up to local governments to adopt and enforce them. I’m sorry to report that in Santa Rosa, city leaders have chosen to mostly disregard the state’s suggested building standards in the name of replacing the burnt structures as quickly as possible.

The larger story here is that, every day, local leaders across California and dozens of other states make the same choice. As a result, thousands of new homes are being built in places where wildfire risks are high, all without the protection offered by fire-resistant building practices. This is nothing less than an abdication of local government’s responsibility for public safety—especially because we know that these codes work.

In April, the Sacramento Bee published an article analyzing Cal Fire data showing how well the state’s building standards, which require fire-resistant roofs, siding, and other safeguards, minimized the wildfire threat during last year’s devastating Camp Fire. The newspaper compared the fates of homes built after California’s 2008 wildfire building standards—and therefore more likely to have the safety features—to those built before the standards were developed. About 51 percent of the homes in the Camp Fire’s path built after 2008 were undamaged, whereas only 18 percent of the homes built prior to 2008 emerged unscathed.

The results are hardly surprising. When these building standards were developed, the California Office of the State Fire Marshal plainly asserted that “use of ignition-resistant materials and design … will prove to be the most prudent effort California has made to try and mitigate the losses resulting from our repeating cycle of interface fire disasters.”

We knew then and know now that wildfire-resistant building standards work. They were developed using decades of observation and research, and with a clear acknowledgement that wildfire is part of California’s reality. Opting out of using these standards with excuses that wildfire is “unprecedented” in California communities is disingenuous at best. At worst, it’s a shortsighted recipe that will lead residents of Coffey Park and elsewhere to needlessly suffer the same fate again. 

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler