What are the specific things to be done when you want to retrofit your home for fire safety? There’s a guidebook that outlines the specifics of what to do.
FIRESafe MARIN was awarded a grant by CSAA Insurance Group to develop a custom home hardening education program and guidebook for California Residents. The Retrofit Guide available here for download is courtesy of IBHS, the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety, and is the top resource available today for homeowners interested in retrofitting existing homes. Research and post-fire assessments have shown that property owners can protect their homes and businesses against wildfire by addressing three clear sources of vulnerability:
Materials and design features used in building the home or business
The landscaping vegetation located immediately adjacent to the home or business
The general vegetation and other combustible materials and items on the property surrounding the home or business.
Each of these sources can be dealt with through maintenance, appropriate choices in building materials, design improvements, and vegetation management.
Here in Sonoma County, it was not until 2017 that we began to really dread October and November as “Fire Season”. Now when the wind blows strongly out of the North East we feel hyper alert, remembering the traumas of recent Autumns.
We wonder, “Why are the fires so much worse? Is it only the result of climate change, or is it forest management too?”
An article last September in The Washington Post, by Matthew Hurteau, associate professor of biology and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab at the University of New Mexico, cast some light on this topic.
Dr. Hurteau argues that “Fire Season” is a result of both factors. “The wildfires burning in the West are as large, hot and fast as they are because of climate change, as more heat and less water make vegetation more flammable.” And at the same time, in the dry forests of our coastal ranges, “there is too much fuel as a result of a century of fire suppression. Before then, these forests burned (less severely) with some regularity.”
“For years, even as the fuel built up, it remained pretty easy to put out significant fires, because the West was wetter and cooler than it is now. Beginning in the 1980s, however, as temperatures rose, the area susceptible to wildfires in the West began to spread. There were more crown fires in dry forests, and the problem grew significantly worse over the next three decades.”
Fire ecology is a scientific discipline that “focuses on the origins of wildland fire and its relationship to the environment that surround it, both living and non-living,” (source: Pacific Biodiversity Institute).
Climate change (which is causing more extreme heat, droughts, and other adverse conditions) is affecting the fire ecology of many western states, including California. States, municipalities, communities, policy makers, builders and designers, land owners, building owners and homeowners, and residents all have a part to play in helping reduce the risk of wildfires spreading into built environments and in creating fire-adapted, resilient communities and structures.
Now that wildfires are occurring with increased frequency in Northern California, people are asking “What can I do to help my home survive a wildfire?”. Whether you are building a new home, adding on to an existing home, or rebuilding from a previous fire, there are some basic things to know about building in areas that are within a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) area.
The selection of building materials and designs to improve the ability of your home to survive a wildland-to-home fire spread, according to Steven Quarles, includes:
Maintain roof covering and replace with Class A when necessary
Remove debris from roof and gutters
Make sure the eave area can resist ember and anticipated flame exposure. Modify near-home vegetation as necessary.
Install multi-pane tempered glass windows
Remove combustible materials from under decks and use compliant decking.
Develop vegetation management plan and maintain selected plants and vegetation with adequate irrigation and removal of dead material.
“A wildfire-safe home must be an ember-resistant home, so that even if the flames do not reach your home, it will be able to withstand exposure to embers that may have been blown a mile or more in front of a wildfire. To provide maximum wildfire protection for your home, a combination of near-home vegetation management, appropriate building materials, and related design features must be used”.
As our Autumn “Fire Season” grows longer and more intense, we see an increasing interest in stopping the building of new homes and other structures in the Wildland Urban Interface.
Climate Change will continue to exacerbate the intensity of fires, and no amount of “hardening” structures will enable them to survive raging fire storms.
Nonetheless, who wouldn’t want to live in a rural area, surrounded by natural beauty?
An article last September in the NY Times by Christopher Flavelle, offers some interesting insights into shifting public opinions about restricting building in flood or fire-prone areas.
He writes, “Eighty-four percent of respondents, including 73 percent of Republicans, supported mandatory building codes in risky areas, and 57 percent supported making it illegal to build in those areas. More than half of respondents favored paying people to move, including three-quarters of Democrats.”
“As global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, decisions about where and how to build have become increasingly important. If local governments continue to allow homes to go up in places most exposed to climate change, such as coastlines, floodplains or fire-prone wilderness, experts say, it will make generations of current and future residents more vulnerable to worsening hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other disasters.”
Deputy Fire Chief Matt Gustafson of the Sonoma County Fire Protection District said, “We know that greenbelts coupled with the correct fuel management practices like prescribed burns and healthy groves, serve as buffers. Along with open space, this includes agricultural areas, vineyards, pastures, golf courses, and grazing lands. We are fortunate that in Windsor a majority of our urban growth interface has these buffers.”
“Multiple firefighting professionals, fire ecologists, and non-profit organizations are working together to reduce wildfire risk in greenbelts and the wildland-urban interface through defensible space, prescribed burns, vegetation management and best forest management practices.”
Clearly, our local government agencies are learning and adapting to meet the increasing challenges of wildfire in an era of climate change.
I’m a resident of Sonoma County, and like most North Bay and Northern California residents (and indeed the residents of most western states and many other parts of the world), I have been adversely affected by the ever-worsening wildfires and ever-longer fire seasons we’ve been experiencing these past few years. The regular and explosive fires, evacuations, red flag warnings, power outages, dangerous smoke in the air, apocalyptic skies, and mass disruptions to work and life in general have taken a toll on all of us. And many of us know people who lost their homes and their sense of security—and became climate refugees, facing displacement and years of insurance headaches and nightmares—because of these fires. I have some good friends who went through this trauma due to the 2017 Nuns Fire. I helped sift through the rubble and toxic ashes of their destroyed home and work studio, on a property that was formerly a sort of paradise and sanctuary; it was an intense and emotionally jarring experience, and it left a mark on me.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of these catastrophic wildfires fueled by dangerous climate conditions. But we are not helpless. There are many actions we can take to prevent or minimize further destruction. To assist our professional community in learning (and educating others) about important wildfire risk reduction efforts and resources, I was asked to help develop the USGBC-REC chapter’s new Fire Ecology resource links . These links, along with the Fire Ecology-related articles that the chapter has posted on its website and in its recent newsletters, can help you identify and implement a number of concrete actions that could protect your own family and residence, your clients and their properties, and your community from wildfires.
When doing this research on fire ecology and wildfire risk reduction resources, I was heartened to discover that there are many experts (e.g., pyrogeologists, fire ecologists, and all types of fire science aficionados and fire safety officials) doing good work, and many smart and positive efforts are underway to lessen the wildfire risks going forward; these include a number of efforts in Northern California and the North Bay. For example, there is a growing understanding among land managers, fire agencies, policymakers, and state and county staff of the need for prescribed fires (AKA controlled burns): a once-traditional, indigenous practice to reduce dry and dead vegetation (fuels) and to safely mimic and manage what would occur naturally if most wildfires hadn’t been suppressed over the last century. I’ve been glad to observe that, at least in Sonoma County, prescribed fires have been happening much more frequently and in many areas before this coming fire season; I’ve been seeing scheduled burns regularly posted on the PulsePoint App’s map, and I’ve also occasionally seen and smelled the smoke from some of these managed fires. I’ve also read about previous prescribed burns (as well as greenbelt buffers) in our County that did, in fact, help protect some neighborhoods from last year’s raging fires.
The Fire Ecology resource links are organized into the following three sections: General, Community-scale, and Property/Building-scale. They feature California and Northern California-specific (state, local, and regional) resources, as well as some national and international resources. The web links include useful organizations, agencies, guidelines and strategies, grants and funding opportunities, reports, and articles.
The Community-scale resources cover state, regional, local/municipal, and neighborhood-level land use/management (of public and privately owned lands), e.g., forest management, prescribed fires/controlled burns, greenbelt buffers / Urban Growth Boundaries (for the wildland-urban interface), zoning that restricts building (or re-building) in fire-prone (or flood-prone or other disaster-prone) areas, and fire-resilient infrastructure.
The Property / Building-scale resources cover site and structure-specific issues, such as residential and commercial landscaping, vegetation management, defensible space; home/building hardening and protection (design, building, remodeling, retrofitting strategies); and smoke protection and remediation, indoor air quality (IAQ) e.g., ventilation and air filtering.
And the links in the General section provide information on a wide range of topics that are relevant to both community-scale policies and practices, as well as property/building-scale (e.g., land owner, building/home owner, and resident) policies and practices.
In addition to doing everything we can to prevent or manage the spread of wildfires and to protect structures, people, and animals from wildfires, we all should also be doing everything we can (through our work, in our households, and as citizens) to help mitigate and slow climate change, as our fast-changing climate is the primary driver of these catastrophic wildfires that have become our “new normal.” To that end, you may be interested in reading some of these climate-specific posts on my blog ( TheGreenSpotlight.com ):
Researching, assembling, and curating resource lists is one of my favorite things to do, so I’m very pleased to have been given this opportunity to develop the list of resources and links on Fire Ecology and wildfire risk reduction for the USGBC-REC chapter’s website. I was on the chapter’s Steering Committee many years ago, when I was working as a green building consultant. Now I mostly do writing, editing, and research on a broad range of environmental (and social) issues, including the climate crisis, regenerative land use, and environmental health. I hope that you will find the Fire Ecology resources and the related links above to be helpful and that you will share them and put them to good use.
“Becerra… argued the project’s environmental impact report…did not sufficiently address the increased risk of wildfire that would result from the development, as well as the limited capacity for evacuation from the community should a fire occur.”
As told by USGBC Redwood Empire Board Member Claudia Cleaver:
It was a hot day with questionable air quality, but I quickly realized I was so lucky to interview Natasha Stocker, Well AP of the Santa Rosa interior design firm Inspired Spaces. I got to walk away with inspiration of my own.
I heard about Inspired Spaces after attending the opening of Beer Baron in Santa Rosa. I fell in love with the amazing interior and had to find out who designed it. When I found out Natasha was both the designer and a WELL AP, I decided I needed to meet her.
WELL launched in 2014 as a health and safety rating system for buildings and interior spaces. Though WELL has been used principally for offices, its check list – Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind, Community, and Innovations – can be used as a way to measure and implement interventions that advance human health for residences, hospitality, and even communities. The WELL Certification is currently only
Natasha explained her attraction to WELL. “I was initially drawn to WELL because it takes the principals of LEED, and breaks them down into a very approachable, very relatable way. When it’s properly implemented, you can actually feel the difference when you walk in to a space. A space that has ben designed using the principals of WELL has a magical quality, because it is not only about avoiding toxic materials so that buildings do not make you sick; it’s also about the practices that can actually make you and keep you well.
She says that, “eliminating the distractions of noise, temperature fluctuations, poor lighting and air quality, and adding that bit of nature doesn’t need to cost more.” Instead, research shows that WELL principals can make a positive difference in the bottom line as productivity and employee retention increase.” Natasha explained that “whether or not you subscribe to the pillars of health and wellness, businesses need to get on board with this philosophy just to stay relevant. WELL can be part of a larger business strategy that is good for both the planet, and its people.”
Natasha walks her talk in her own interior designs office which she describes as having “a green house vibe with plants everywhere,” and time set aside for yoga breaks.
The WELL Certification is currently available for commercial property. WELL Certification and the WELL AP credentialing program are administered by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). I am now so stoked to learn more about WELL and to collaborate with Natasha on some net zero projects with Inspired Spaces. What a great combo LEED and WELL.
Start here: this is a letter that was sent to community groups in all the cities in Sonoma County to introduce the model Climate Emergency Resolution.
The Climate Mobilization is the organization in the U.S. that began advocating for emergency climate action in 2014. They helped shape the 2016 Democratic National Party Platform, the Green New Deal, and the Climate Emergency Declaration currently in the U.S House and Senate. Their website has a wealth of great background information.
Here’s a link to the website that tracks Climate Emergency Declarations/Resolutions worldwide: http://bit.ly/ce-governments. As of August 12, 2019, the number of jurisdictions listed stands at 948 and increases steadily.
STAR : Sustainability Tools for Assessing & Rating communities
STAR Communities is a Washington, DC based nonprofit organization, now partnered with USGBC , that works to evaluate, improve and certify sustainable communities. They administer the STAR Community Rating System (STAR), the nation’s leading framework and certification program for local sustainability. Cities and counties use STAR to measure their progress across social, economic and environmental performance areas.
STAR’s Goal Areas and Objectives
Built Environment: Achieve livability, choice, and access for all where people live, work, and play
Climate & Energy: Reduce climate impacts through adaptation and mitigation efforts and increase resource efficiency
Economy & Jobs: Create equitably shared prosperity and access to quality jobs
Education, Arts & Community: Empower vibrant, educated, connected, and diverse communities
Equity & Empowerment: Ensure equity, inclusion, and access to opportunity for all community members
Health & Safety: Strengthen communities to be healthy, resilient, and safe places for residents and businesses
Natural Systems: Protect and restore the natural resource base upon which life depends
An eighth category, Innovation & Process, supports the evolution of sustainability practice by recognizing best practices and processes, exemplary performance, local innovation, and good governance.
Each of the rating system’s 7 goal areas is supported by 6-7 Objectives. Objectives are the clear and desired achievement intended to move the community toward the broader sustainability goal. Below are the system’s 45 objectives, organized by goal area.
STAR Framework of Sustainability Goals & Objectives
STAR objectives are achieved through attainment of two types of evaluation measures: community level outcomes and local actions. Outcomes are measurable condition-level indicators that depict a community’s progress toward a preferred state or condition within the STAR objective it supports. Outcomes are represented as trend lines, targets, or thresholds in the rating system.
The menu-based system allows local governments and their local partners to select the objectives they feel are most relevant to their communities.
Objectives are met by two types of actions
Education and Outreach
Policy and Code Adjustment
Partnerships and Collaboration
Inventory, Assessment, or Survey
Enforcement and Incentives
Programs and Services Preparatory
Facilities and Infrastructure Improvements
Each of the seven goal areas has 100 available points in six or seven objectives of 10 or 20 points. There are 50 points available in a Innovation and Process objective as well.
All points are verified by STAR Communities.
There are three levels of certification
3 Star Community – 250-449 points 4 Star Community – 450-649 points 5 Star Community –650-750 points
The process usually takes a year and there are post certification services from Star Communities to help communities continually improve and recertify
We lost a real leader in the green building community last month. Our chapter president, and guiding light died unexpectedly. We were shocked.
Steve spent his last day meeting with an inspiring new client, training for a San Francisco to Santa Barbara bike ride / climate fundraiser, playing with his grandson, and watching the Warriors pull off an epic last-minute win. As soon as it was clear his team had won, Steve was gone; far too soon for his family and friends.
Steve’s family evaded the Holocaust, immigrated to the US, and he grew up in Los Angeles in a working class multi-generational German-Jewish household. He had warm memories of his grandmother’s plum tarts and the gefilte fish she would prepare in the bathtub. His father took him fishing and inspired in him a love of classical music.
Since his childhood he dreamt of being an architect, which led him to attain a degree from USC in architecture. There he met a group of fellow students who would remain his closest friends and collaborators throughout his career. Upon graduating, he apprenticed with a builder and began working with his tools. For the rest of his life, he blended architectural drawing with hands-on building.
Steve landed in Sebastopol in California’s Sonoma County in the early 70’s and raised a family there, along with large vegetable gardens and goats and chickens. He designed and built their passive solar home, where he lived happily for the rest of his life.
Steve had the rare privilege of a life whose passion and livelihood were one and the same. He was a strong-willed and independent man, and he remained self-employed throughout his career. This allowed him to be present in his children’s lives: he participated in school trips and sporting events, taught them about gardening and the natural world, and even designed several buildings at the local Waldorf School, from which all four children graduated.
His life was driven by the idea of community and by connecting more meaningfully with the natural world. As his children began their own lives, he found a new passion in sustainability and green building, always striving to lower the carbon footprint of his work. He built live-work apartments with communal outdoor spaces. Through his design, landscaping, and thoughtfully chosen building materials, he encouraged human interaction and a close connection to the natural world.
His death at 72 years old leaves many projects in process, including a hempcrete house and his work as president of his local chapter of the US Green Building Council.
Along with his work, Steve’s passions included hiking and backpacking, white water canoeing, swimming, baking sourdough bread, gardening, digging holes, watching sports, playing tennis and finding the best cheap eats. He felt that his greatest accomplishments were his family, his children and grandchildren, even as he created a landscape of utility and beauty around him.
He is survived by his wife, Michaela, children Oliver (Brody), Will (Sarah), Lowell (Natalie), Brenna, six grandchildren, brother Mark, and his dog sidekick, Andre.
“We don’t have much time to get things right now,” Steve said. “It’s a crunch.”