Constructing Common Sense By Ramona Byron
About the Southern California fires that are going on right now, my question is: “What the devil were the developers and city councils thinking?”As I write this, people are fleeing, their homes are going up in smoke, many of their helpless animals were abandoned to their fates, and acrid smoke and ashes fill the air.
I will admit that I’m no expert on fire fighting or prevention, although I did have occasion to study it in the Navy Officer Candidate School. There, we learned that there are three elements to a fire: fuel, oxygen, and heat. If you take away only one of those three elements, the fire goes out. Now, obviously, you cannot remove oxygen and heat from Southern California. But we could do a lot about the element of fuel for wildfires that is now being provided by the houses.
As I watch the news footage of homes burning in Southern California, I see over and over that these houses have little or no fire resistance, even though they are built in obvious wildfire zones. I even see cedar shake roofs on some of these houses, and I watch the footage of fire quickly consuming the flammable shakes and the roofs caving in. These houses seem to be pyres that are just sitting there and waiting for a spark to set them off. Just to make things even crazier, they build houses in canyons, and then install wooden decks (also known as “fuel”) sticking out over the canyon as if to ensure that any fire down there will be led straight up to the house. Then to top it all off, they have gas grills out there on the decks, ready to explode if a fire inevitably blows up from the canyon.
Often these houses have those fashionable but useless wooden arbors over the front doors as a lame effort to create some shade at the entrances. Those things are at best a complete waste of building materials because they do not provide shade, and at worst they are a nearly-criminal thing to do to a house. So if anyone had to run out of their burning house with their cedar-shake roofs, they would be caught in the fire that is right at the door from these idiotic wooden arbors.
Does any city or county planning commission around here ever consider fire prevention when they are approving house construction permits or developing building codes? Have any of them, even once, considered what it means to firefighters to have to protect these flimsy houses that are being continually and increasingly built in known wildfire zones? Is there one shred of common sense anywhere around here at all? It just wouldn’t be that difficult to plan a community in order to reduce the risks of fire rather than to increase those risks.
Since I’m no expert, I think my advice at least passes the common-sense test, which is something that seems to be in critically short supply in Southern California when it comes to building codes for fire zones. So here are my initial suggestions for future building codes in Southern California: 1. Houses built in known wildfire zones should be fire-resistant. The interior walls should be of stone or masonry rather than wood construction. They should have tile, slate, or metal roofs; thick masonry exterior walls; and fire-resistant windows. 2. No house in a wildfire zone should ever be allowed to have a wood fireplace. 3. No house on a canyon should ever be allowed to have a wooden deck sticking out over the canyon.4. All houses in wildfire zones should have a set of sprinklers along the ridge of the roofs and at the corners of the roofs facing outward. These could create a mist that would surround the house to protect it from fire. After all, we put sprinklers inside houses and apartments, and we put sprinklers on the lawns, so why not put them on the roofs to protect the house?5. Housing developments in wildfire zones should be planned so that the houses are grouped fairly closely together on cul-de-sacs that face into the center; and the generous-sized, fire-retardant backyards should have a stand of banana trees at the perimeter. Banana trees are full of water, and would make a natural firebreak. Plus, they’re cute and they provide bananas.6. There should be agricultural land surrounding the community or housing development, which would provide for another firebreak. It could also serve as the community’s own food garden.7. No one anywhere in Southern California should ever be allowed to plant highly flammable trees or other highly flammable plants of any kind. Period.8. There should be a serious program to eradicate highly flammable trees such as the ever-present eucalyptus around here.9. Since we know for a fact that a lot of houses are inevitably going to burn up every year in Southern California, the building codes should require construction materials that are not toxic to us when we have to breathe their fumes and ashes as they are burning.
Please note that most of these suggestions are inexpensive, and some of them can be done by homeowners without waiting for inefficient city and county administrations to intervene. Install some sprinklers on your roof (especially if you can’t replace your cedar shake roof anytime soon); plant some banana trees; pull out flammable plants; and get rid of those infernally stupid wooden arbors at your front doors. Your life could depend on that last piece of advice.If city councils won’t listen to reason about intelligent planning, then the home loan and insurance companies may have some leverage on this.
After all, they should have an interest in building houses that will endure for a few years longer. They could start by refusing to underwrite highly flammable houses in wildfire zones.We don’t have to keep being victims of fires or of shoddy construction. It’s time that the people had a say in this. So call your city or county administration and demand some decent building codes. The house and life you save could be your own.