NFPA Journal®, March/April 2003
At first, he was inclined to suggest that prospective buyers follow the concepts outlined in the Firewise Communities/USA program as part of their development contract. But when he was ready to start building last summer, Heftel decided to require prospective buyers to sign a covenant legally binding them to use fire-resistive building materials and follow wildfire prevention practices modeled after those in the Firewise program. When fully built, the development's nearly 100 homes will all be structurally fire-resistive and have a defensible zone around them.
It was a bold step, but, Heftel says, no one buying into the River Bluff Ranch development has refused to sign.
"We made it clear to everyone how important it is to use fire-resistive building materials and to be committed to fuels maintenance in an environment such as this," Heftel says.
Firewise Communities/USA is an education program sponsored by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Program, a consortium made up of the USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Interior, the National Association of State Foresters, the U.S. Fire Administration, and NFPA. The consortium's covenants, which require fire-resistive building materials and defensible zones around properties, are a new concept in the wildland/urban interface. However, community adoption of wildfire standards such as NFPA 1144, Protection of Life and Property from Wildfire, is becoming common in many areas, as residents realize that the most effective way to avoid destruction from wildfires is proper construction and fuels maintenance.
"This particular mountain has never had a serious wildfire, but the forest is very vulnerable because unhealthy growth has been allowed," Heftel says. He says River Bluff Ranch is uphill and upwind from 1,000 acres (404 hectares) of public land that hasn't been maintained and is overloaded with fuels.
Among the requirements of the River Bluff Ranch covenants are paved two-lane roads, secondary evacuation roads, and a network of forest roads. Also required are underground utilities; a series of non-potable-water storage tanks with dry hydrants; fire-resistant roofing, double-paned windows, deep side yard setbacks, defensible space, and vegetation maintenance; and an on-site caretaker, equipment, and shop.
The covenants further require that the community's homeowners' association, when formed, enforce the covenants, educate the residents, maintain the roads and water storage facilities, manage an ongoing forest stewardship program, and implement the recommended Firewise Communities budget—currently $2 per person—to be used for future Firewise efforts.
It's an attitude that Heftel views as a remarkable change.
"Only about five years ago, a similar, upscale development was constructed several miles from here that wouldn't allow anything but wood-shake shingles for the roofing," he says. "Shakes won't come anywhere near this development."
Changing habits in Montana
Washington isn't the only wildfire-prone state in which NFPA 1144 is used to convince homeowners to change their building material and construction habits. Frenchtown, Montana, with a population of 1,700, adopted NFPA 1144 in 1998.
"One of the things I like about the code is it's a standard we can refer to," says Frenchtown's Fire Chief Scott Waldron. "Except for the cities, there's no building code in Montana, so NFPA 1144 is a tool that we use with builders and homeowners to change their habits regarding the materials they use and the need to cut back on fuels."
NFPA 1144 provides those responsible for fire protection, land-use planning, property development, property maintenance, and others responsible for, or interested in, improving fire and life safety in wildlfire-prone areas with minimum requirements for planning, construction, maintenance, fire prevention, and management.
Waldron, whose department covers 150 square miles (388 square kilometers), says that, after adopting NFPA 1144, the community applied for grant money to do risk assessments throughout the town.
"We mapped high-risk areas using GPS (global positioning system) and targeted them for mitigation work," Waldron says. "Then we went to each of the homeowners and explained the risks, both in fuels buildup and construction on the property that was putting the structure at risk."
He says the grants also helped to secure extra help for a fuels-reduction program. "We've managed to do about 200 properties so far," he notes.
Before new homes can be constructed, the prospective owners must obtain a fire safety permit from the fire department. At this point, Waldron uses NFPA 1144 to inform the homeowners what they need to do to before construction.
"And we go back and check before the permit is issued," he says.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes we make in the business of fighting wildland fires is telling people that we will be there to protect them, because that's not always true," Waldron says. "But in the past few years, I think we've made a lot of progress in educating people on what they need to do, not only to have a defensible perimeter, but to use building materials that will allow a house to survive a crown fire."
According to the Structure Ignition Assessment Model (SIAM), a fire model developed by Jack Cohen, a scientist at the U.S. Forest Service's Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, a fire-resistive wooden structure surrounded by a 100-foot (30-meter) area in which fuels have been thinned has a good chance of surviving a fast-moving crown fire. However, Cohen's research seems to indicate that the principal cause of home losses during wildfires isn't necessarily the buildup of fuels. Rather, it's the degree to which a home is vulnerable to ignition, a factor that's often overlooked when determining the cause of property loss during a wildland fire.
"A home's ignition zone is pretty much determined by the characteristics of its construction and its immediate surroundings, regardless of what wildfire might be moving through," Cohen says.
Key elements in a structure's ignitability are flammable roofs; burnable vegetation, such as ornamental trees and shrubs, close to the house; the lack of tempered-glass or double-paned windows; and the lack of 1/8-inch (0.3-centimeter) mesh to keep fronds from entering openings in the structure.
The research also seems to suggest that contemporary methods of fighting wildfires by reducing the fuel load may not be as effective as believed because thinning fuels on public lands does little to reduce the ignitability of a home on private land. It also suggests that the wildland/urban interface zone doesn't fully take into account the area of prime fire risk and fuel hazards: the house and surrounding vegetation.
Cohen further stresses the importance of the conditions that exist when a wildfire is raging.
"When an extreme event, such as an intensely hot wildfire occurs, many hundreds of structures may be destroyed," he says. "The involvement of urban fire apparatus at this point is pretty much ineffective."
He points to the Los Alamos, New Mexico, fire in 2000 as an example.
"At one point the fire was threatening 1,000 structures. How does fire apparatus cope with that?" he asks. "Under these extreme conditions, we don't have a choice over the fire's behavior. Where we do have a choice is the home ignition, that 100-foot (30-meter) radius around the house."
Florida uses Montana research
Jim Harrell, the wildland mitigation coordinator for the Florida Division of Forestry, says his division uses Cohen's research to encourage homeowners to create zones around their property to reduce ignitability.
"We took a close look at what Cohen found out in Montana to see how it applies to Florida," Harrell says.
Over the last three years Florida, which adopted NFPA 299, Protection of Life and Property from Wildfire, (NFPA 1144's former designation) as a reference item in the state's Fire Prevention Code, has assembled fire management teams to help the state's 15 fire districts reduce fuel loads, especially those near private property.
Harrell says that Florida has had great success with Firewise workshops.
"We've had 20 one-day workshops since August 2000, and we've had real good attendance from builders and developers who are beginning to buy into the Firewise concepts."
Builders in other states are showing an interest, too. Among them is Leo Scott, who's made a good living for 30 years as a building contractor in Prescott City, a fast-growing community in the high desert of central Arizona. Since 1970, Prescott City's population has almost tripled, from 13,000 residents to nearly 36,000. In 2002, it grew at the rate of 3.3 percent annually, and federal census projections predict a population of 45,000 by 2014.
Prescott City is located in Prescott National Forest 75 miles (121 kilometers) north of Phoenix, 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Flagstaff, and about a mile (1.6 kilometer) above sea level. Its rugged beauty and hundreds of square miles of forest land is a magnet for thousands of new residents every year, most with little or no experience living in the wildland/urban interface.
"Construction, especially new home construction, is our biggest business," Scott says. "And people who buy property with plans to build a house have a certain expectation that construction costs will remain affordable. That's why there was concern among builders when workshops focused on building materials."
Those workshops were Firewise workshops, and concerned or not, the community opted to pursue the program, with as many people as possible involved in implementing Firewise techniques. Prescott City's been an active Firewise community since 1990, and Scott and his fellow contractors, as well as newer and long-time residents and fire officials from various jurisdictions, participate in the effort to maximize the city's fire resistiveness.
Throughout the 1990s, says Prescott City Fire Chief Darrell Willis, the Firewise Communities effort made slow, steady progress, but it was the Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos that galvanized the community.
"That wildfire really got people's attention, and we got much more serious about our Firewise program and began stressing the need to use building materials that give structures a chance to survive a wildfire."
Scott says the use of fire-resistive materials was a "touchy subject" because the fire department is in a different business than builders.
"We're trying to produce a product that's marketable and affordable, and you have to be careful that you don't price yourself out of the market," he says. However, he acknowledges that many of the things the Firewise program advocates are just common sense and don't cost much.
"Something as simple as making sure all soffits are fully enclosed (to keep out fire brands) is easily done," he notes. "We were able to get closer to a balance between the need to use fire-resistive materials and a desire of homeowners to build attractive, affordable houses."
Scott says he now regularly uses fire-retardant, Class A-rated shingles made of asphalt or masonry on roofs, although he doesn't often use treated wood because it needs periodic maintenance.
"Who's going to make sure that the wood gets re-treated to keep it fire-retardant?" he asks.
Because the Arizona climate is so dry, Scott says the use of wood on exterior walls is uncommon.
"It dries out quickly, rots, and then needs to be replaced."
Instead, he usually applies one coat of stucco with a one-hour fire rating to exterior walls.
Arizona's climate also requires that homes have excellent ventilation.
"You can't eliminate ventilation in houses because you'll end up with mold and mildew and void the warranty on the new house," Scott says. His solution was to use 1/8-inch mesh to cover such openings as crawl space and attic accesses. It works.
"Flames in wildfires move so fast that there's not enough time for them to penetrate the much closer mesh," Scott says.
"The mesh really works to keep out fire brands and sparks and still allows the house to be well-ventilated," Willis says. Because fire officials worked closely with the building community in developing a consensus approach to choosing building materials, Scott says he's become an enthusiastic supporter of the Firewise program.
"The whole process has been very positive for our community," he says.
Even before a building permit is issued, however, the fire department inspects the land and identifies the vegetation that must be removed before construction can begin.
"We go out and tell them what needs to be done, how far back they must cut back the trees and brush and other fuels," Willis says. "And we go back to inspect and make sure it gets done before we issue a building permit."
Willis says that, over the past two years, Prescott City has received grant money from the federal government to help pay for a portion of the cost of crews to remove vegetation and create defensible space on property occupied by older homes.
"We've managed to treat more than 1,000 properties in two years," Willis says. "We're making a pretty good dent."
False sense of security
"No place in the United States is completely safe," says the NFPA's James Smalley, project manager for Firewise. "There are floods, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, and wildfires. Every spot in the United States has the potential to be affected by a force of nature, but wildfires don't elicit the same attitudes of self-preservation that those other forces do."
Smalley, a nationally recognized expert on effective methods of minimizing the loss of life and damage caused by wildfires, believes many Americans, especially those new to the wildland/urban interface, have a false sense of security borne of their previous life in an urban or suburban environment.
"So much of our population has lived within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of a large or medium-sized city that we've become accustomed to expecting the local fire department to do it all," Smalley says. "But it doesn't happen like that in areas near wildlands."
Smalley says the issue is no longer how to protect people and property. Effective methods have already been identified. The primary issue now is educating people who live in the wildland/urban interface about these rules and procedures, and emphasizing how important it is that they be closely followed. In addition, Smalley says, it requires a change in attitude among these residents of remote regions.
"When living in the urban, built environment, people can get away with the attitude of ‘I'm not responsible for my own protection.' But in the wildland, you're on your own," he says. "City dwellers are taking city-living concepts to places where they don't exist. We need to learn a lot more about living in the natural environment."
That's why the Firewise program and NFPA 1144 are playing such important roles in teaching people how to pick the right location for a house in wildland, how to landscape properly, and how to use fire-resistive building materials.