Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Legacy Of Living In A Hot Spot

by Broderick Perkins
© 2007 DeadlineNews.Com

Deadline Newsroom – California's largest residential evacuation ever – some 1 million Southern California residents fleeing more than a dozen wildfires churning smoke and burning embers this week – is a life-style legacy.

It's a legacy of more than 500,000 acres burned, 70,000 homes threatened, 1,500 homes and other structures destroyed, 1 death and more than 50 injuries – so far.

If it was only the one, past dry winter that transformed California into a tinderbox, homeowners could pray for rain.

In reality, for those who insist on living in fire-prone areas, building fire-resistant homes may be a more pragmatic, long-term approach.

Weather and climate forecasters earlier this year warned of more of the same hot, dry weather, perhaps for years to come. With it comes the threat of a greater number of more powerful conflagrations.

The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, said earlier this year persistent drought conditions spreading in California are to blame for this year's extended fire season.

Rather than rare or random, drought is a normal, but temporary aberration, unlike aridity -- a permanent condition of some climatic regions, such as deserts. Drought comes and it goes as a result of a precipitation deficiency or sufficiency over an extended period of time, typically a season or more, according to the NDMC.

But climate change due to global warming may be causing longer, hotter droughts.

"Although we don't know how climate change will affect regional water resources, it is clear that water resources are already stressed, independent of climate change, and any additional stress from climate change or increased variability will only intensify the competition for water resources," reports NDMC in "Drought And Climate Change".

But those always-arid regions – deserts – are spreading too.

The United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) "Global Deserts Outlook" says even as global warming is beginning to cause higher sea levels to nip at the coastlines, higher temperatures also generate "desertification," pushing the desert frontier out, closer to populations centers typically situated on the desert fringes.

UNEP reports that the overall desert temperature increases of between 1 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the period from 1976 to 2000 has been much higher than the average global rise of 1 degree during the same period.

"This is our legacy. We live in a drought and we build housing too close to brush areas and we're shocked when this happens. This is not an accident. This is not an act of God. This is an act of man," said Jamie Lee Curtis, a keynote speaker at the Long Beach, CA Women’s Conference 2007 this week.

While even a steel-reinforced bunker isn't fire proof, building and fire officials say you can build into your home a greater level of fire resistance to protect it from a fiery fate -- if only long enough to escape or for firefighters to arrive.

The key is combining fire safe landscaping with fire resistant materials.

Fire prevention and protection experts say if you live in a high fire risk area you should have a defensible perimeter around your property of at least 30 feet. Keep the area clear of dead vegetation, space trees, prune over hanging branches, maintain soil moisture and keep lawns irrigated. Trees and brush should be well trimmed out to a 100-foot perimeter. Same jurisdictions mandate the fire safety steps.

When it comes to building materials, use only those manufactured to American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards and assembled following International Conference of Building Officials' (ICBO) building codes or the local variation.

The Fire Safe Council says building a new home is the best time to build in the most fire safety, but retrofitting for fire safety is just as smart.

• Roofing. Your home's strongest line of defense is a Class A roof. Most fire resistant Class A roofs are made of aluminum, steel, concrete, clay or slate. Such a roof is especially protective in a foliage-borne fire that rains hot embers. Uncomplicated roof design using a simple hip or straight gable roof provides greater protection than roofs with intersecting planes and valleys. The latter forms dead air pockets and eddy currents that help fan the flames of a fire.

• Ceiling, Walls, Floors. Building codes typically require fire-resistant gypsum wall board in certain locations in a home, including between a garage and the main house. Consider using it elsewhere, in walls, floors and ceilings to help create a fire barrier.

• Exteriors. Stucco, stone, masonry and other exterior materials are better than wood at preventing fire from intruding into the walls. Metal siding also provides greater fire protection, but you must take measures to reduce a wicking effect that can allow condensation to develop and deteriorate material behind the siding.

• Windows. During many California wild fires, the exterior pane of some energy-efficient dual-glazed windows cracked, but the interior pane held. Consider upgrading old windows with newer dual- or triple-glazed windows.

Tempered glass is even more resistant to high heat. It's the glass used in patio doors and in front of fireplaces, for good reason. Low emissive (Low-E) coating builds in even more fire resistance because it reflects infrared and ultra violet light -- heat rays. In a wild land fire it helps stop the radiant energy transfer to combustible materials that are behind the glass such as drapes or wood furniture and walls. Tempered glass with Low-E coating will stay intact longer and transfer less radiant energy to combustibles behind it.

Glass block is another option, provided you don't mind losing your view. Use it where only day lighting is needed, view is not a factor, and the window faces a very high fire hazard.

• Don't overlook shutters -- metal ones. Real shutters that swing into play, not decorative shutters can add extra protection to a widow in a fire as well as wind storm. If they are metal they will not ignite. You will, however, have to swing them shut in a timely manner, should a fire approach.

• Doors. Like roofing materials, doors are also fire-rated. Solid wood doors are stronger than hollow ones. Metal doors are best. In any case, a good fire resistant door requires adequate weather stripping so that the seal prevents hot gasses or burning embers from entering the building.

• Design. Flames can snake beneath decks, eaves and into crawl spaces. Common in many panoramic regions, decks ironically offer a view of what heightens the fire hazard -- ranges of towering, and potentially explosive evergreens.

First, most decks are highly combustible structures. They trap heat and hot gasses. To take in the unobstructed view, they often face downhill, looking out on a fire's approach. They effectively and openly invite the fire into the home. Decks also are built perfectly to burn, much in the same way you would stack wood in a fireplace. Adding fuel to the fire, the components of a deck, joists, decking and railings, are made of only two-inch-thick wood giving the structure the high surface-to-volume ratio fires quickly devour.

Build decks with only the most fire-resistant materials and create barriers by closing in the deck, screen vents, eaves and crawl spaces to ward off burning embers. You can isolate the deck from the fuels and fire by building a noncombustible patio and wall below it. The patio prevents combustible materials from getting below the deck. The wall helps shield the deck from both the radiant and convective energy of the fire.

• Additional considerations. Fire and building officials say consider installing residential sprinkler systems if you are improving or building homes in fire prone areas. Sprinklers reduce the risk of fire deaths by 75 percent when combined with a smoke detector.

Check with your insurance company, but some of the steps you take to protect you home from fire can give you a discount on your homeowners policy.

Where There's Fire, There's A Smoke Threat
Global Warming Hits Home

© 2007 DeadlineNews.Com

Broderick Perkins, an award-winning consumer journalist of 30 years, is publisher and executive editor of San Jose, CA-based DeadlineNews.Com, a real estate news and consulting service, and the new Deadline Newsroom, DeadlineNews.Com's new backshop. In both cases, it's where all the news really hits home.

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