The desire to build houses that are resistant to wildfires


Colden says: “The idea is that getting out is always the best thing. “We had community bomb shelters, didn’t we? These are practical community fire protections. Those are the kinds of conversations we haven’t had. And if we want to build truly fire-resilient communities, we need to have those moving forward.

Our shelters

The basic science behind building fire prevention isn’t particularly high-tech or expensive, but it’s the opposite of what we’ve long thought about wildfires. In the year In the 1970s, when Jack Cohen pioneered the concept of a “buffer zone,” a zone clear of flammable vegetation or other fuels within a structure, the U.S. Forest Service largely ignored it. It was a paradigm-shifting innovation—easily applied restoration, at least wherever it was available—but it meant thinking about wildfire from a defensive position rather than the offensive one the Forest Service had accepted for nearly 100 years.

Today inspectors have arrived, and California building standards for wildland areas with high and very high fire hazards now require 100 feet of open space around buildings, with at least 100 feet to clear. Other home-hardening measures are relatively minor, even inexpensive: replacing shingles, sealing window seams and joints, using fine wire to cover vents where sparks may enter. And the latest fire retardant materials will not save a house that is allowed to be filled with dry incinerators. Form tends to follow function: flat roofs, steel windows, clean lines that leave no port for errant fire. Each devastating fire is bound to spur new innovation as new weaknesses are revealed.

The basic science behind building fire prevention isn’t particularly high-tech or expensive, but it’s the opposite of what we’ve long thought about wildfires.

California’s strict fire code applies only to those in clearly designated high-risk areas (one in four residential buildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) and newly constructed. In the year In Paradise, where a 2018 fire killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, only 40% of homes built after 1996 survived, compared to just 11% of those built before.

Thomas Cova, a geographer and professor of geography at the University of Utah, said the increase in denser and denser housing in the dead-end ditch is a concern. Space between houses, or the lack of them, is a significant predictor of whether or not they will burn. Building suburban sprawl is in many ways good housing policy for a state suffering from a severe shortage of affordable housing, but bad land-use policy for a state with frequent wildfires. Still, there is little clear incentive for local authorities to prevent new homes from being built, even those that increase the risk to society as a whole. One more flammable structure on the hill, one or two more cars on the road—but only one more property tax bill.

Revitalizing the built environment in cities and towns established a century ago is off the table — a task not required by state code and with no obvious funding source available. Even in areas where communities are destroyed by fire, existing roads are not subject to minimum fire safety regulations when it comes time to rebuild. But completely new residential tracts are held to very high standards.

“I’ve always thought of a shelter as a backup plan in case of an emergency, and it’s really smart to consider what options you might have,” says Cova. But now I think it is being discussed in connection with this [new] development”

That’s especially true given California’s acute housing affordability crisis, putting the state under increasing pressure not only to continue building new homes, but also to build on cheap, rural and fire-prone land. New guidance issued by the California state attorney general in October 2022 clearly calls for local agencies to “avoid overreliance on community evacuation plans” and consider alternative shelters.


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